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Promising to Be Honest Can Actually Curb Teen Cheating

Promising to be truthful has a real impact on reducing the number of teens who are willing to cheat, according to a new study conducted in India. The findings, published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, suggest that the desire to be honest goes beyond just a fear of social retaliation.

The study, conducted by a research team from the University of Plymouth in England, involved 640 adolescents (ages 10 to 14) in India and was designed in such a way that made it impossible to tell who had and had not kept their promises.

“Promises are what we call ‘speech acts’ and create commitments by merely saying specific words,” said the study’s first author, Dr. Patricia Kanngiesser, associate professor in psychology at Plymouth. “So one would think that they have very little binding power. In contrast, research has shown over and over again that many people do keep their word, even at a personal cost.”

Cheating and dishonesty, even on a small scale, can undermine trust and lead to costs for others, and society at large. Cheating in academic settings is a problem worldwide. As of 2018, 20% of the world’s adolescents — about 250 million individuals — lived in India and the country’s highly competitive educational system means academic cheating is a concern.

To the best of the researchers’ knowledge, there are no previous experimental studies into the effect of promises on cheating rates in Indian adolescents.

The study involved a series of experiments to test the effectiveness of inviting participants to promise to be truthful, with points that would later be converted into prizes as an incentive. For example, adolescents played a game in which they mentally chose a location in a box with 16 dice, shook the box and recorded the number of the die falling in their chosen position.

Prizes were proportional to their total reported scores across fifteen rounds. Since the initial choice was private, opportunistic and unobservable switching to a higher scoring die was possible.

Before the task, the participants were given a choice to promise to be truthful or not. To make promising to be honest more attractive, those who did so received extra points. This gave even potentially dishonest participants an incentive to choose to promise. Control groups of participants could choose between the same incentives but did not have to promise.

The researchers were able to gauge the degree of dishonesty by comparing participants’ reported results to what would be statistically expected. Compared to control groups, promises in the study systematically lowered cheating rates, and the authors conclude that they could be a simple tool to reduce dishonest behavior.

“This study provides more evidence of that, and suggests promises could be a powerful way of encouraging and sustaining honest behaviour in an academic context,” Kanngiesser said.

“The study also exemplifies the benefits of global cooperation and diverse perspectives in research,” she said.

“We were conducting online studies with adults on promise keeping when our collaborator, Dr. Jahnavi Sunderarajan, suggested applying this in academic contexts in India, where there is a lot of competition and educators are worried about cheating, but few empirical studies exist. As a result we have been able to expand our research into a new area and make progress towards addressing an important problem.”

Source: University of Plymouth


Promising to Be Honest Can Actually Curb Teen Cheating

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Promising to Be Honest Can Actually Curb Teen Cheating. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 Aug 2020 (Originally: 5 Aug 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 5 Aug 2020
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