Nearly three-quarters of college students surveyed admitted to cheating on tests or plagiarizing papers at least once during high school, according to new research in the September Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. But it seems a certain type of student is more likely to cheat — those who score highest on tests of the "Dark Triad": subclinical psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism. Psychopathy — a personality disorder marked by manipulation, callousness and antisocial tendencies — was most strongly linked to cheating. These findings were confirmed using the Turn-It-In program as the arbiter of plagiarism.
As it turns out, the study authors say, personality type is a better predictor of cheating than academic struggles.
"We couldn't believe the previous research that said that personality doesn't matter in cheating," says lead researcher Del Paulhus, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "We figured it was likely that the darker personalities we study had been overlooked."
Although all three dark personality types are more likely to cheat than other students, their methods differed. People high in Machiavellianism were more likely to plagiarize essays, whereas people high in subclinical psychopathy tended to impulsively copy other students' answers during exams.
The researchers also found that students who cheated felt entitled to good grades, didn't think cheating was wrong or just didn't care.
Teachers have to acknowledge such individual differences in considering how to minimize cheating, the researchers say.
"There's not too much you can do about a psychopathic personality," says Paulhus. "You have to accept the fact that there are going to be a certain number of them in your classes."
Instead, he says, teachers should focus their efforts on prevention. Don't reuse old exams, for example, and choose essay topics that ask students to draw upon their personal experiences.
Not all cheaters are narcissistic, Machiavellian or psychopathic, however. Poor preparation can also drive students to cheat, the researchers found.
"If they have poor cognitive skills or simply haven't prepared because of low conscientiousness, then out of desperation they're more likely to cheat," says Paulhus.
To reduce cheating among those students, the researchers suggest efforts to reduce the competitive atmosphere in classrooms. Instructors should give one-on-one feedback rather than posting grades, use pass/fail rather than specific grades and incorporate classroom activities that require group rather than individual effort, Paulhus recommends.
"If they're not publicly embarrassed about their poor performance, the poor-performing students aren't going to feel so desperate," he says.