Friday, October 9, 2009

Cheating is now 
prevalent in many 
spheres of life

I have been thinking a lot about cheating recently – not the extra-marital kind, that is, but rather the act of breaking or bending the rules to have an unfair advantage over others or to beat rivals.

Cheating is everywhere of late.

In Formula One motor racing, the Renault team admitted to instructing one of their drivers to crash so their other driver could be advantaged.

In another startling story, now dubbed Bloodgate, the director of rugby at  Harlequins club, in England, asked one of the team physiotherapists to buy blood capsules from a joke shop and give them to players so they could fake injuries.  A player was caught spurting phoney blood on the field. But cheating, certainly in sport, is not new.

Race fixing in horse racing is as old as the sport itself. Tonya Harding got her ice-skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, clubbed on the leg just before the American championship in 1994. 

And who can forget cricketer Hansie Cronje’s match-fixing shenanigans? And I have not even started on doping scandals, financial fraudsters and vote riggers, not to mention where cheating is difficult to establish or is ‘normalised’. Soccer players fake injury sometimes dozens of times in a match. Acting skills are now essential to professional footballers.

Money now calls the shots, and getting ahead is increasingly competitive. This explains why a young driver would deliberately crash a car, risking his and other people’s lives, or a rugby player would gush ‘blood’ on request. Both knew their careers could be advanced if they cheated and, seemingly, the potential risk of being caught was dwarfed either by ambition or feeling they had no other way to advance themselves.

Some studies have found that 95% of students claim to have cheated at some point in their school career.  In researching this article, I discovered dozens of websites dedicated to help-ing you cheat at school, including handy videos to demonstrate cheating techniques.

In a 2001 article by Donald L McCabe and others, entitled ‘Cheating in Academic Institutions’, the authors showed that cheating had increased in the previous 30 years at universities. They argued that students’ perceptions of their peers’ behaviour was the most powerful influence when it came to cheating. If lots of people are cheating, it becomes acceptable. If peers are perceived as cheats, others feel at a disadvantage and tend to eventually end up cheating themselves.

In other words, a permissive environment encourages cheating, which most of us know. The stock response to this is that there should be zero tolerance for cheats. But there is another way.

If McCade and his fellow researchers are correct, it is not merely context that matters but your peers’ behaviour and attitude that profoundly influence a decision to cheat. In the North American college system, this led to an honour code where integrity is valued in the faculty and among students. Research shows the system has fairly high levels of success.

The honour system does not solve all problems, but the principle is interesting. Creating an environment where people obey the rules because they think it is the right thing to do, not simply because they fear being punished, shifts the focus of responsibility from enforcement of rules to taking personal responsibility to act with integrity. The more people act with integrity around you, the less likely you are to cheat.

All this is a bit of pie in the sky, but it does mean change starts with each of us. Spending time thinking about your own integrity, the holes in it, and how to plug them, seems to me to be a lot more productive than shouting self-righteously at the TV when it looks like another sportsperson or politician has bent the rules. 

Have you ever paid less tax than you should have? Have you ever massaged your CV to get a dream job? Have you ever inflated an insurance claim? Of course not.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 9 October 2009. as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.