Why We Stand By In the Face of Cheating

Topics: Blog, Research

On Wednesday of this week, ICAI will host its 3rd International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating. The purpose of the day is to share one day, around the world, where every educational institution will stand up and speak out against contract cheating. While we’ve not yet reached the goal of “every institution”, our hope is that each year a growing number will join a loud chorus of unified voices who aim to shine light on this disease invading educational systems. We also hope that this day of action will force action by political and educational leaders to finally take actions to eradicate the pervasive pathogen of the unscrupulous, unethical and unhelpful contract cheating providers.

In other words, this 3rd Day of Action is our global call-to-action – it is our call for educational institutions and politicians to stop being bystanders to the spread of this disease. So, in this post, I explore this concept of the “bystander effect” and how it explains the struggle of getting people to stand up and speak out against cheating and contract cheating.

This bystander tendency to stand back and watch something horrible unfold in front of one’s eyes while doing nothing is not unique to the contract cheating phenomenon. Psychologists have been studying the bystander effect for decades and for most of that time, it was thought that apathy (that is, “I don’t care about the situation/person I’m observing and therefore I won’t act”) led to this inaction. However, psychologist Scott Lilienfeld and colleagues suggest that apathy is not the most common cause of the bystander effect. Rather, Lilienfeld and colleagues argue that the bystander effect is more likely a psychological paralysis brought on by a “diffusion of responsibility” (that is, “I’m not going to act because it is someone else’s responsibility”), “pluralistic ignorance” (that is, “I’m not going to act because no one else is, which must mean that everyone else thinks there is no need to act”), or just the fear of looking foolish.

On an episode of the Freakonomics podcast, Lilienfeld argues that this fear of looking foolish is particularly influential in ambiguous situations where “it’s not entirely clear that that something is an emergency”. As you might recall from an earlier blog post of mine, it seems evident that most people do not view cheating as an emergency, primarily because cheating in school doesn’t typically cause immediate harm to basic needs like safety, security and physical sustenance. Cheating situations may not just be ambiguous because they lack urgency, but because they lack clarity. Take a student who sees another student using their cell phone during an exam. It is difficult for the observing student to know whether their peer is checking the time or are cheating with the cell phone. Or, consider a teacher who reads a paper that just seems too good to be true and written at a level much beyond the student’s normal writing. Did the student contract cheat or did they simply work really hard on the paper, get help from the TA or the writing center or just not try hard enough on the earlier papers?

Both of the preceding scenarios are ambiguous because they lack urgency and clarity, and it is easy to imagine both the student and the teacher being paralyzed by a sense that they might look foolish. It’s also easy to imagine the student believing it is not their responsibility to intervene or the teacher believing that if the student was contract cheating, some other teacher in another class surely would have noticed it before and the student would have been expelled by now. In other words, it is easy to see why both the observing student and the teacher might choose to be bystanders rather than actors in these scenarios. Ironically, the lack of action will not bring the bystander the clarity and urgency they so clearly need (and perhaps even desire). It is only by acting (e.g., interrupting, investigating, inquiring) that one can discern the truth of the situation. It is only by acting that we can relieve the stress caused by the unknown.

To be sure, it is not easy to force action from inaction, to move an inert object like a person who thinks they may (or may not) be observing something that may (or may not) be a problem upon which they could (or should) exert influence. But we can train ourselves to act in the face of potential integrity or ethical violations, whether that be cheating in school or any other ethical scenario. The Giving Voice to  Values curriculum is but one popular training method for doing just that. Regardless of the specific training model, we, as educators, have an obligation to do something when we think that integrity might be in jeopardy. It is our moral obligation. As educators, we also have the moral obligation to train our students how they can act in response to an unethical situation – at school, in work, and in life. We must prepare them to be able to act as ethical citizens and professionals.

At UC San Diego, we conduct our own Bystander Intervention Training. In this training, we train people to recognize ethical issues when they’re facing them, choose an action in response, and then act (partly by rehearsing the scenarios that will paralyze them from acting). We work to equip them with the skills and knowledge so that they will feel confident to step out from the bystander role and into the role of interruptor, redirector, engager, and/or reporter. In other words, we try to help them build the courage to uphold fairness, honesty, responsibility, respect and trustworthiness, even when it is difficult to do so. I’ll follow up in the next couple of weeks with an instructional post on the specifics of the Bystander Intervention Training we conduct for students, Residence Assistants, TAs & Tutors, faculty and staff, so that you can replicate it at your institution if you choose to do so.

Until then, I implore all of us to use this 3rd International Day of Action as our source of courage (knowing we have friends and allies) to step out of the bystander shadows and into the glaring light that will come when we truly tackle the burgeoning contract cheating industry. It will be a fight to be sure. Many educational leaders do not want us to speak up and out because doing so shines light on the practices that we must change in-house. Many politicians do not want us to speak up and out because doing so shines light on their failure to address corruption in business and government. And certainly the contract cheating providers do not want us to speak up and out because our doing so will threaten their million dollar industry.

But our students need us to stop being bystanders. Our students count on us to partner with them in upholding the integrity of higher education so that their degrees, their work, and their learning will have meaning and a lasting, positive impact on their lives. Let us turn a blind eye no longer. We must interrupt the unethical practices of contract cheating providers and we must demand action by ourselves, our students, and our educational, political and business leaders. Enough is Enough.

It is time to stand by no longer. We must #defeatthecheat and help our students #excelwithintegrity.

About the Author
Tricia Bertram Gallant, Ph.D. is the author of Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative (Jossey-Bass, 2008), co-author of Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), editor of Creating the Ethical Academy: A Systems Approach to Understanding Misconduct & Empowering Change in Higher Education (Routledge, 2011), and section editor for the Handbook of Academic Integrity (Springer, 2016). She is the Director of the UC San Diego Academic Integrity Office and Board Member of the International Center for Academic Integrity, and has been an ethics lecturer with the Rady School of Management. When Tricia blogs, the content is hers and should not be attributed to her employer or ICAI.
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