Why do people cheat at tests? The answer seems obvious: to perform better than the opposition. But a couple of studies on children are casting some doubt on this simplistic interpretation. Rather, it seems that some children cheat out of pressure to maintain their level of achievement and to extract further praise.
That’s the take home from a couple of studies out of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. Children praised for being smart were found more likely to cheat ahead of subsequent tests than those that weren’t.
The first study involved a group of 300 three and five-year-old children from Eastern China who were asked to play a guessing game. Half of the children had their miniature egos fueled with praise for their incredible intellect with the phrase “you are so smart”. The remaining children were also praised, but for their performance, rather than their inherent qualities. “You did very well this time,” they were told.
The researchers then excused themselves, leaving their big file of answers for the next round in easy grasping range. Each child was told to promise that they wouldn’t look at the answers, presumably with an elaborate stage wink to the hidden cameras which duly caught a number of them peeking. It was, however, the children praised for their brains that were more likely to break their word and cheat.
The second study had a similar premise with similar findings. The researchers told some of the 243 children collected for the study that they had a reputation for being smart. This praise correlated neatly with a larger chance of them cheating when they got the chance.
In other words, according to the studies’ co-author Professor Li Zhao, children “feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to others’ expectations, even if they need to cheat to do so.”
Just changing the wording to focus on the performance, rather than the child’s innate qualities is enough to ensure a greater chance of honesty, according to the OISE’s Professor Kang Lee. “Praising a child’s ability implies that the specific behaviour that is commented on stems from stable traits related to one’s ability, such as smartness,” he explained. “This is different than other forms of praise, such as praising specific behaviours or praising effort.
“We want to encourage children, we want them to feel good about themselves. But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behaviour. Only in this way, will praise have the intended positive outcomes.”
It’s doubtful this is the only reason that people cheat – it would be interesting to see how many children that were told they were underperforming felt the need to cheat, but that feels a touch cruel. But at the very least, it’s further evidence that unadulterated praise isn’t good for anyone – toddler and adults alike.