The Spread of Academic Cheating

David Conley | New University

UCLA assistant professor and UCI alumnus Rick Grannis speaks on the contexts and dynamics of cheating.


UCLA assistant professor of sociology and UCI Ph.D. Rick Grannis recently discussed the social problem of academic cheating during last Tuesday’s UC Irvine event, “The Contagion of Cheating and Network Ethics.”

“Cheating can be seen almost as a virus moving through the population,” Grannis said.

Over the course of three years, Grannis surveyed over 2,000 UCLA students to research this issue and common cheating habits of college students. Through his research, Grannis discovered that through time, the pattern of cheating has shifted substantially.

His latest unexpected discovery shows the phenomenal effects of encouragement from peers.

“The actual active encouraging someone to cheat is itself contagious,” Grannis said.

Grannis defines social learning as “the idea that you observe your peers cheating and you are more likely to cheat.” Through observation of the act, Grannis claims that students will be more likely to repeat the normalized act.

“If five people encourage you to cheat, welcome to the club, you are a cheater,” Grannis said.

Membership in a fraternity, sorority and sports is the unique factor for cheating. “People have reputation effects, they share social settings,” Grannis said.

Grannis discussed one of his notable examples of a sorority student. His subject was experiencing a rough week and cheating became the easiest solution, as her sisters had formulated a cheat sheet for her.

A large part of the practice coincides with the values, ethics and morals and how they function when encouraging others to cheat, with roommates being the most consistent party to motivate the behavior. Another one of his studies showed that where students are located in the dorms explains how likely they are to cheat.

“10 percent of the variation accounts for where your dorm room is,” Grannis said.

In some cases where living arrangements in the dorm are completely out of one’s control, the more a student remains in the dorm also leads to a high probability a student will repeat the behavior. While universities employ honor codes to prevent cheating, Grannis admitted that they are only effective when enough students believe in the code.

On the other hand, the more students believe they will utilize the assignment in their work field, the lower the chances that plagiarism will occur.

There are, however, a few people who are pushed to cheat and do not cheat.

“The longer a student has been in school, the less likely they are to cheat,” Grannis said.

Most often the case, classes taken for elective credits are the highest targets of cheating.

“Some professors sometimes take for granted how valuable it is to explain to students the importance of the class, of what they are teaching,” Grannis said.

Professors who interact with students about the importance of a particular class help students  actively focus and commit their time and effort for the assignments.

“Encouraging someone to cheat is making the drive for someone to tell someone else to cheat,” Grannis said. “This is where the contagion comes from, the fact that it is moving through the population. This is the containment that moves around a lot.”