Profiling Student Cheaters: Are They Psychopaths?

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There are lots of reasons students cheat — lack of preparation, lack of academic aptitude, sheer laziness. Now a new study suggests another explanation: it’s coded in their personality.

Psychologists at the University of British Columbia found that students who cheated in high school and college were likely to meet the criteria for psychopathic personality — the type that tends toward a range of bad behaviors, like alcohol and drug abuse, bullying and reckless driving. It’s the same impulsive, callous and antisocial personality that characterizes criminal psychopaths, though, to be fair, student cheaters scored a lot lower on psychopathy questionnaires than actual criminal offenders. (More on Time.com: Video: Giving Dropouts a Second Chance)

The researchers found that academic cheaters also scored high in two other personality traits: narcissism (people who suffer from grandiosity, self-centeredness and an outsized sense of entitlement) and Machiavellianism (cynical, amoral types who make it a habit to manipulate others). But of the three disordered personalities — together known colorfully as the Dark Triad — psychopathy was the only trait significantly associated with student cheating.

The new paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, describes the results of a series of three studies involving nearly 600 college students. (Read a PDF of the paper here.) In each, the volunteers were asked to fill out anonymous personality questionnaires; some participants also took tests of intelligence. Personality questions included: “I like to be the center of attention” (i.e., I may be a narcissist), “It’s hard to get ahead without cutting corners here and there” (Machiavellianism), and “I have attacked someone with the goal of hurting them” (psychopathy).

In the first study, researchers determined students’ previous history of cheating through self-reports; in the second, they used an objective measure of current cheating — the online service Turn-It-In, which scrutinizes students’ written work for passages copied from previous papers, academic articles and Web pages. (More on Time.com: 20 Back-To-School Gadgets)

The results: according to self-reports, 73% of college students admitted to cheating at least once in high school, a finding that is roughly in line with estimates from previous surveys; rates of Turn-It-In plagiarism were much lower, at 15%, which is also in line with previous studies looking at single opportunities for cheating. Overall, after controlling for other personality types and factors known to predict academic fraud (lack of aptitude, for instance), psychopathy remained most strongly correlated with cheating.

Why do psychopaths cheat? According to the third and final study involving 223 undergrads, some reported that they felt cheating was an acceptable way to achieve their academic goals, such as getting As or winning a scholarship. “It is notable that the achievement goals shared by most college students trigger cheating in psychopaths alone,” the authors write.

Students who scored high in psychopathy also, predictably, tended to report a lack of concern about behaving honestly or morally — that is, whether or not cheating is wrong, they really didn’t care. (More on Time.com: Photos: Summer Programs Keep Kids’ Minds Sharp)

The study’s authors conclude that personality can be used to identify students who are likely to cheat. Problem is, it wouldn’t be ethically or practically feasible to prescreen college students for psychopathy — and, anyway, psychopathic traits are notoriously hard to change. “On the whole,” the authors write, “our character analysis suggests that the only way to eliminate cheating among psychopaths is to make it impossible.”

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