by Shelley Seale

There is a lot of talk about cheating in colleges and universities — but how prevalent is it, really?

A new study from The Ohio State University suggests that when students feel there is a “culture of cheating” at their institution — that in which academic dishonesty is ignored or condoned — they are more likely to engage in cheating behavior themselves. The research team call this link “moral disengagement,” in which students may feel that if cheating is not taken seriously at their college or faculty look the other way, or if they somehow feel justified in bending the rules because their administration is out of touch or a “zero tolerance” policy is viewed as unfair, they do not feel a moral imperative not to cheat.

At a session presented at the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) virtual conference, The Ohio State University researchers discussed their study that showed moral disengagement positively predicts cheating behaviors, along with the implications for future research and recommendations to combat this.

Culture of Academic Integrity

A culture of academic integrity is something that all institutions of higher education want to have, said Andrew Perry, Graduate Teaching Associate at The Ohio State University.

  • Academic integrity in higher education is of paramount importance to educational researchers and stakeholders.
  • Effective communication of academic integrity policies or honor codes can promote a culture in which academic integrity is a priority.

Academic honesty is a valued priority, Perry said — not just at the administration level, but at the ground level of students as well.

In fact, this academic integrity is one of the core values of higher education, and when that is tarnished it not only undermines the reputation of the institution but also diminishes the value of the degree a student obtains from it.

“We very much care about the messages that universities are sending their students,” Perry told the ICAI conference attendees. “However, that message is not always received as we think it might be.”

Culture of Cheating

“There’s qualitative evidence from Robinson & Glanzer that students at the ground level focus on the negative elements of the academic policy,” Perry said. “They downplay cheating rates, they focus on zero tolerance policies. There’s evidence to suggest that zero tolerance policies do not work.”

Combined with that, if cheating is ignored, condoned, or handled ineffectively, negative consequences are likely. One of these consequences may be that a “culture of cheating” develops in which cheating is perceived as permissible or acceptable.

“We need to be aware that this is something that could potentially exist, and how do we avoid this?” Perry posed. That is the angle from which The Ohio State University research tackled the subject.

What is Moral Disengagement

“We have argued for a mechanism between this perception of a culture of cheating, and actual downstream academic dishonesty,” Perry said. “Moral disengagement is a psychological process.”

  • Disengagement separates the student from the moral implications of academic dishonesty.
  • Moral disengagement is more likely when a culture of cheating is allowed or there are little to no actions to prevent it.
  • Therefore, cheating behaviors are more likely when a culture of cheating is considered acceptable by being ignored.

This moral disengagement means that students might downplay the implications of dishonest behavior, justifying their cheating behaviors as a reaction against disengaged faculty or an out-of-touch administration, or feeling like it “isn’t really hurting anyone.”

“That’s one of the arguments we’re making in this study,” Perry said. “But specifically, we’re also arguing that a perception of a culture of cheating leads to more cheating, through moral disengagement.”

The Ohio State University Study

Using that argument, Perry and his team posted the following hypotheses:

  1. A perception of the acceptability of a culture of cheating would positively predict cheating behaviors.
  2. Moral disengagement would serve as a significant mediator between culture of cheating and cheating behaviors.

In this study, students self-reported cheating behaviors. The study was conducted with 987 undergraduate students from multiple universities using an online recruitment platform and online surveys. The mean age was 24.6 years old with 57% female and 43% male. 

ohio state university study cheating moral disengagement

All measures were newly constructed as part of a larger validation project, and the items were Likert-type (e.g. strongly disagree to strongly agree). Some of the types of items included:

  • Students here do not take cheating very seriously.
  • If others engage in cheating behavior, then the behavior is morally permissible.
  • Self-reported cheating, as in getting questions or answers from someone who has already taken an exam.


“A culture of cheating did, in fact, positively predict self-reported cheating behaviors,” Perry shared. “The more the student perceived a culture of cheating, the more likely they were to have done these cheating behaviors (12 different behaviors). So that is a statistically significant and positive direct effect.”

Along with predicted cheating behaviors, a culture of cheating positively predicted moral disengagement, the study found.

“The culture of cheating may result in adverse psychological processes such as moral disengagement,” Perry said. “And that can actually affect, downstream, actual cheating behaviors.”

He added that these results are largely a cautionary tale for colleges and universities. Ignoring the problem reinforces the way students might view the school as having a culture of cheating, and therefore potentially create more cheating behavior and undermine the academic honesty of the institution. Learning from these results to implement effective policies and communicate them clearly to students will help the institution move forward in a positive way.

“Knowing that these things affect each other, we can actually provide recommendations for how to get around these issues,” Perry said.

ohio state university study cheating moral disengagement

Future Directions

Despite the study’s findings, Perry is hopeful about the future. Understanding these relationships and implications could enable institutions to address the issue and reinforce academic integrity. He shared some recommendations for institutions of higher education:

  • Acknowledge the role of psychological processes in prevention efforts by establishing the moral implications of academic dishonesty.
  • Maintain a school climate in which cheating is addressed and handled in visible, yet fair and equitable, ways. The authors report that zero tolerance policies are rarely effective.
  • Examine other elements of the culture of cheating such as peer behaviors, peer perceptions of cheating culture, and teacher perceptions of cheating culture.
  • Examine potential moderators such as gender, race, and generational status.

“That would be an excellent way forward, seeing that psychological processes matter, but also that a culture of academic integrity that we all strive for needs to be not just at the policy level, but at the individual level, at the student level,” Perry concluded. 

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