dishonestly dishonestly Dishonesty affects everything from classrooms to stores to businesses. (Photo: PathDoc / Shutterstock)

How to encourage students to be honest on tests

Scientists use this creative plan to turn Pinocchios into Honest Abes.

Perhaps shoplifting and answers written on hands will become a thing of the past. A new article by social scientists from Harvard, Duke and two schools in Israel – Ben-Gurion University and the Interdisciplinary Center – draws on insights from the growing field of combining psychology and behavioral economics to turn dishonesty into honesty. Here's what the researchers suggest:

It's not all about enforcement

teacherYou can't monitor everyone all the time. (Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Normally, people try to control dishonesty using punishment. For instance, a teacher might watch students carefully during a test and give cheaters detention.

The problem with this approach, according to the researchers, is that, "instead of encouraging people to be honest, enforcement teaches them to avoid punishment or to become better cheaters. In fact, external punishments can crowd out internal motivation and further separate people from their moral compass."

Instead of focusing on punishing dishonesty, it's much more effective to encourage honesty – to turn it into a value people care about. That might seem like quite the challenge, but these scientists point out that it's possible because ...

People want to be honest

pledgePeople often act dishonestly and feel honest at the same time. (Photo: LoloStock/Shutterstock)

According to the researchers, "investigations of misconduct in the real world and in laboratory experiments show that people tend to curb their own dishonesty. Even when the chances of detection are minimal, or when under conditions of complete anonymity, most people limit their cheating to an extent far below the maximum possible."

People who cheat don't usually want to cheat; it's more that they're stuck between competing desires, sort of like being stuck between your new diet and a delicious-looking donut.

"According to the psychological model of dishonesty, people are caught between a rock and a hard place – that is, between the temptation to profit from unethical behavior and the desire to maintain a positive ... image of themselves," write the researchers.

The scientists believe that a new framework would encourage this innate honesty, and this framework can be boiled down to three principles:

1. Reminding

string around fingerPeople take advantage of gray areas to justify their dishonest behavior. (Photo:

Subtle clues can really affect behavior. The researchers found that, when test subjects are reminded about honesty before an experiment, they're much more likely to be honest during the experiment.

"Placing signs with 'The Ellen Show' motto 'Be Kind to One Another' next to handicapped parking spaces is likely to encourage ethical parking behavior," explain the researchers.

In a classroom, this might mean a teacher could talk about the importance of honesty before handing out a test. One of the researchers involved in this study was Dan Ariely, an Israeli-American professor at Duke University who has become famous for explaining human decision-making. In his book, "The Honest Truth About Dishonesty," he devotes an entire chapter to discussing school tests and simple techniques that can bring about more honesty among students.

2. Visibility

lightbulbIn the lab, participants in a slightly dimmed room cheated more than participants in a well-lit room. (Photo: vasabii/Shutterstock)

When people feel like they can be seen, they're much more likely to behave honestly, even if no one is really watching.

"One study showed that when a picture of eyes was displayed above an honesty jar, honor payments for coffee and tea were nearly three times more frequent than when a picture of flowers was displayed above the jar," write the researchers.

Perhaps teachers should make sure their classrooms are bright and that they're in the room during exams. They might even experiment with putting cartoon eyes on tests.

3. Self-engagement

filling out formPeople think about honesty abstractly more than in daily life. (Photo: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

Many people consider themselves honest, but still cheat. This final piece of the puzzle is all about making people think highly of themselves for being honest, which could make people resolve to act better.

Researchers conducted a study where they asked participants to fill out a statement reporting their car mileage to insurance companies. Reporting a lower mileage meant paying less for insurance, so many participants were tempted to cheat. When researchers had participants sign a statement of honesty at the beginning of the page, participants were more honest than when they signed it at the end of the page.

"Shaping better moral habits with the principle of self-engagement encourages people to resist everyday temptations and stick to their own highest values," explain the researchers.


Photos and SlideshowsPhotos and Slideshows

Related Topics: Education, Science

How to encourage students to be honest on tests
Scientists use this creative plan to turn Pinocchios into Honest Abes.