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America Has a Cheating Crisis (Why Leaders Should Worry About It)

Cheating lower the bar for everyone, not just who's cheating.

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 29, 2018

The annual festival was happening in a small village, and each villager was asked to contribute by pouring a bottle of wine into a giant barrel.

One of the villagers had this thought: “If I pour a bottle of water in that giant barrel, no one will notice the difference.” But it didn’t occur to him that everyone else in the village might have the same thought.

When the banquet began, and the barrel was tapped, what came out was pure water.

That’s the problem with cheating: by trying to win at all cost, we miss the long-term consequences. Even if we don’t get caught, you’ll experience the aftermath taste.

Cheating lowers the bar for everyone — we all get to drink water instead of wine.

Rewards promote the wrong behaviors

“A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for.” — W.C. Fields

Who cheats?

Almost everyone, if the risk is worth the reward.

There’s a cheating crisis in America’s schools. 74 percent of high-school students admitted cheating on an exam at least once. However, the problem goes well beyond — teachers cheat as much as kids do.

In the book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner describe how incentives lower the bar, rather than encourage us to do the right thing.

School test scores determine more than students performance; they define the fate of the institution. Schools are held accountable for the results — low scores could mean being placed under probation and face the threat of being shut down.

Teachers are more concerned about “high stakes” testing than everyone else. Their jobs, not just their students future, are on the line.

The authors performed an analysis of Chicago Public School to detect if teachers cheated but, most importantly, how. To catch a cheater, they decided to think like one.

First, they look for unusual answer patterns in a given classroom. If poor students gave correct answers to the most difficult questions, that would raise a flag. Secondly, they identified uneven spikes — if one classroom shows a one-year peak with a dramatic fall to follow, there’s a likelihood that the improvement was ‘artificial.’ A third indicator is the class’s overall performance — if the average score dramatically spiked compared to the previous year, something was not right.

To validate the hypothesis, the Board of Education decided to readminister the standardized test. The classrooms where no cheating was suspected performed similarly or slightly better. Those who were suspected of cheating scored far worse.

Cheating has become pervasive in professional sports, politics and the workplace.

In a research by the University of Georgia, about 55% of people acknowledged manipulating work for self-gain — e.g., falsifying statistics, inflating production numbers or altering timesheets. Another 31% recognized sabotaging coworkers and or stealing their ideas. Additional studies show that half of workers fake sick days.

Unfortunately, the “everyone does it” mentality can drive social acceptance — lowering the bar creates long-term consequences.

The authors of Freakonomics reduce the explanation to a simple economic formula: people cheat to get more for less (effort).

Why people cheat (and why it matters)

Cheating is a byproduct of high-performance cultures.

Measuring people by goals or achievements makes everyone focus on winning at all costs. Self-interest and the need for self-protection drive employees. People will do whatever it takes to win or survive.

The Cheating Under Pressure study demonstrated that, when employees feel their jobs are at risk, their anxiety and self-protection level increase, which motivates cheating behavior.

Pressure to achieve is the number one reason people cheat. That’s why bosses, teachers, and sports coaches turn a blind eye to people’s behavior — everyone’s future is at stake.

People cheat to impress others. In a society that privileges winning over mastery, we are incentivizing the wrong role model. Those who win are respected regardless if they broke the rules.

Not surprisingly, cheating is perceived as an acceptable means to achieve a higher goal. A study published by Harvard Graduate School of Education shows how students justify cheating under extenuating circumstances, including high stakes moments. Graduating from high school justifies cheating.

The ethos of cheating plays a significant role regardless of which side of the spectrum you are in.

High-performing teams encourage a ‘go along’ conduct. Everyone has to abide by the same rules as the price of being part of a winning team. Challenging the team ethics can get you into trouble.

A friend of mine was beaten down by his teammates when they end in second place in a national rowing competition. That was the price he paid for not wanting to take performance-enhancing drugs as everyone on the team did.

Low-performing teams follow similar patterns. As the Chicago Public Schools case showed, they will focus their energy on beating the system. Sometimes, cheating is more demanding and risky than doing the right thing.

Three aspects accelerate cheating.

The culture of an organization:

Endless ambition justifies all means; cheating becomes self-reinforcing — we take shortcuts to win. When financial goals are the one and only metric, companies ask little questions about how things get done.

Enron or Volkswagen crises are clear examples of that — everyone saw what was happening, but people were afraid to speak up. Conversely, honesty is higher in companies were people like their work and their boss.

The context:

The ‘broken window’ theory suggests that signs of disorderly and petty crime — litter, graffiti, broken windows — trigger more disorder. When everyone is breaking the rules, why should one bother?

The “everyone does it” motto becomes an excuse for one to cheat too.

“Illusory anonymity:”

Research shows that, in darker environments, people feel more prone to cheat. When no one is watching, we think we won’t get caught. Similarly, the sense of being invincible creates that same illusion.

Politicians, entrepreneurs and professional athletes believe they will never get caught. That’s why cyclist Lance Armstrong or Uber former CEO Travis Kalanick kept pushing the limits until it was too late.

You drink what you pour in

The problem with cheating is that will drink what you contributed to the big barrel.

When you cheat, the first person that you fool is yourself.

Shortcuts are a superb cheating mechanism — we expect a high reward at barely any cost or effort. Unfortunately, most shortcuts don’t deliver the magic solution they promised.

Seth Godin refers to this as the ‘shortcut crowd’ — people who crave for things that are too good to be true. He mentioned how his grandmother was disappointed by a $99 exercise machine she bought — she expected it would do the exercise for her.

As the author explains, these people cheat themselves because they don’t really want to change. They buy into shortcuts that, deep inside, they know they won’t work. That gives them the excuse to blame the manufacturer — it was its fault, not theirs.

When you cheat, your win won’t last forever — the aftermath will.

What’s the purpose of getting high scores one year if the classroom will fail on next? Mastery is more important than winning. When we allow people to graduate or being promoted without them being ready, we are cheating too.

Looking in other direction when people are cheating, is a way of cheating too. That you, or other people, don’t get caught doesn’t mean that we won’t all suffer the consequences.

If everyone pours water, regardless if no one is watching or not, we will all end drinking water instead of wine.

When everyone cares for the better good, there’s less room for cheating.

Blame it on sticks and carrots

We cheat because we want to win.

The reward encourages us to make the wrong move. We focus on the short-term win and don’t care about the long-term effect — incentives narrow our vision.

Carrots and stick are so last century, according to Daniel Pink. He says that we need to upgrade our reward system. In his book Drive, the author proposes a new approach with three essential elements: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

Our primary biological drive includes hunger, thirst, and sex. The other long-recognized drive is our response to rewards and punishments in our environment. That’s what motivates cheating as I discussed above.

However, the most critical drive has been discovered and studied only in recent decades. Scientists call it “Intrinsic Motivation:” the behavior that is driven by internal rewards — it arises from within because it is naturally satisfying to you.


Our brain is wired for us to behave autonomously and be self-directed. As I wrote many times, people don’t want to be changed by others — behavior changes happen from within.

Pink explains how this autonomy is necessary over tasks (what we do), time (when we do it), team (who we do it with), and the technique (how we do it). That’s why practices such as self-organization and self-selected teams are getting so much acceptance.


Making progress in what we do is the single most important motivation. Mastery is the opposite of shortcuts — we put effort into something because we seek personal growth, not just success.

Mastery takes time and effort. It requires adopting a learning mind — to learn how to learn. Everything feels difficult when you try it for the first time. Mastery is the opposite of cheating — appreciate the journey, not just the destination.


Our human nature is to contribute to something more significant and more enduring than ourselves. We want to make the world a better place, not just reap the benefits.

Your purpose is a lighthouse that guides your path in life, especially during stormy weather. It encourages you to live the way you want to be remembered, as I wrote here.

Organizations are rediscovering the value of purpose. They are realizing that people want to accomplish a higher mission, not just do their jobs.

Cheating is a clear signal that you’ve lost connection with your purpose. Instead of trying the make the community wine better, you just add water. You care more about your short-term win than the aftermath of your behavior.

Cheating is driven by a ‘carrot and stick’ model. We do what’s right when someone is watching, but fool others when the stakes are worth it.

You have autonomy over your behavior — the pressure to win shouldn’t dictate your choices.

You have the talent and passion for mastering your act — focus on improving your craft. Success is an outcome, not a goal.

Your purpose in life is to contribute to the giant barrel that is your family, your community, your workplace, and the whole world around you.

Let’s pour our best wines into everything we do — people will soon notice and join the movement.

P.S.: Curious on how to fight a cheating culture? Read the follow up piece.

What do you think?



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