Our Cheating Culture

There has been a lot of news about cheating lately. It turns out that as long ago as 2006, a top technology executive (not a rogue underling) at Volkswagen made a Power point presentation detailing how to cheat on diesel emissions tests. Perhaps the company felt it needed to cheat to keep up with the Joneses, as we now know that Mitsubishi has been similarly cheating for 25 years.

The ghost of Lance Armstrong lives on in that bicycle racers are now surreptitiously motorizing their bikes with tiny motors and batteries. It lives on in the use of PEDs by major league baseball players, tennis stars, and NFL athletes. A very successful triathlete appears to have manufactured her success by cutting several race courses. It’s easier to win if you don’t do the entire course, it turns out.

And, this is the one I found most surprising (though I shouldn’t have): the elite game of bridge, played and backed by people who tend to be upper crust in wealth and outlook, has similarly been victimized by cheaters. David Owen’s New Yorker article on bridge cheating contained three lessons.

First, cheating had become so common that bridge players had largely resigned themselves to living with it. This was partly due to it being relatively easy for cheaters to avoid any serious risk of being detected and partly due to the desire of governing bodies to avoid any risk of being sued for making false accusations. This is, of course, reminiscent of the Tour de France doping scandal. Lance Armstrong was not wrong when he concluded that doping had become so common that any rider who hoped to have a realistic chance of winning the most prestigious bicycle race in the world simply had to consider cheating himself. Furthermore, the anti-doping technology seemed to always be one step behind the technology that the dopers had and, furthermore, bicycle officialdom seemed weak and irresolute in its anti-doping enforcement efforts. Similarly, in the world of triathlons, those who suspected cheating had often kept quiet for fear of being sued, as Sarah Lyall’s articles in the New York Times have indicated.

Second, two simple changes shook up the bridge world’s accepting culture. First was the ability to tape bridge hands and to display them on YouTube where other players could examine them in detail and for a long time, often ultimately sussing out how the cheating was occurring. This is paralleled by advances in anti-doping science that made successful evasion of cyclists more difficult and, in the case of the triathlete who cut the course, the increased availability of official race photographs and of timing data produced by timing chips that racers are required to wear in Ironman competitions.

A second development that shook up the original culture occurred when one Norwegian bridge player, Boye Brogeland, created a website called Bridgewinners, a global discussion-and-support forum for honest players that encourages them to blow the whistle on cheaters they encounter. Again, this development has its parallels in the other worlds. For example, Slowtwitch, an online magazine for triathletes, began hosting a web forum where triathletes could compare notes in order to detect cheaters and to rail against those who do cheat.

Third, while some players have suggested various technological fixes (in addition to many already in place) to make cheating more difficult, Brogeland believes that the true solution is for the game to develop a firmer cultural commitment to ethical play.

Author Owen concludes that bridge “players today seem less resigned to unethical behavior by opponents than players of the past sometimes did—no doubt partly because, for the time being, they have the tools to fight it.”

Our Ethics Unwrapped videos such as The Self-Serving Bias, Incentive Gaming, and Loss Aversion all demonstrate that the anticipated joys of winning and pains of losing too often motivate cheating behavior in business, in sports, and elsewhere. While all of us can agree with Boye Brogeland that firmer commitment to ethical actions in both business and sports cultures are desirable, it is also hard to ignore the role of changes in technology that made it easier and more efficient to detecting cheating. This suggests, in part, that we should encourage more active policing by our sporting authorities and by government regulators such as the EPA, the SEC, and the FTC.

I teach at a university, and recent studies show that close to half of all college students (undergraduate and graduate) admit to cheating. As in other areas of endeavor, cheating often occurs for two primary reasons, as Professor Brigitte Vittrup recently pointed out. First, the technology the cheaters have (including altering PDF text layers and buying papers from ghostwriters) has outstripped the technology (such as anti-cheating software) of those policing them. Second, authorities, in this case the professors (40% of whom admit to having ignored cheating) and university administrators (who often do not support professors who detect cheating and wish to do something about it) do not do the heavy lifting needed to discourage, catch, and punish cheaters.

Rationalizations such as “everyone else is doing it” become even more powerful when everyone else really is doing it, which is the situation we will be in soon unless all of us who oppose academic cheating redouble our efforts. We need better technology, but also more determination.

References:

Ian Austen, Tiny Motor Powers a New Threat to Cycling Races, New York Times, April 18, 2016.

Ted Berg, One of MLB’s Best Stories Takes a Dark Turn with Chris Colabello’s Suspension, USA Today, April 22, 2016.

Jack Ewing, VW Presentation in ’06 Showed How to Foil Emission Tests, New York Times, April 26, 2016.

Cork Gaines, Maria Sharapova’s Explanation for Taking a Banned Drug May Have Just Cost Her a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card, Business Insider, April 13, 2016.

Sarah Lyall, Swim. Bike. Cheat?, New York Times, April 8, 2016.

Sarah Lyall, She Said She Didn’t Cheat. Video Suggests Otherwise, New York Times, April 28, 2016.

David Owen, Dirty Hands, The New Yorker, March 7, 2016.

Tom Silberstein, Packers Cornerback Demetri Goodson Suspended Four Games for PED Violation, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 22, 2016.

Jonathan Soble, Mitsubishi Says It Cheated on Fuel Tests for 25 Years, New York Times, April 27, 2016.

Jonathan Soble, Behind Mitsubishi’s Fakes Data, Fierce Competition, New York Times, April 21, 2016.

Brigitte Vittrup, Stop Students Who Cheat Before They Become Cheating Professors, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 27, 2016.

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