Gattaca Explains the Psychology of Cheating


After a particularly long day of clinical work last week, I came home and watched 1997's Gattaca. Science fiction, whether good, bad, or ugly (I'm looking at you SyFy channel original films) calms me down and helps me unplug from work. I'm sure it was a cognitive bias (availability heuristic?) resulting from Lance Armstrong's widely publicized interview with Oprah, but I realized that Gattaca is actually a story about cheating.

Unfair competition

Gattaca takes place in a word that has perfected genetic engineering. Families (who can afford it) select the genes of their children, optimizing intelligence and physique while eliminating genetic diseases. After being born, the purity of one's genome is quantified and ranked.

Gattaca's genetic ranking classifies individuals as "valid" or "invalid". 

Gattaca's genetic ranking classifies individuals as "valid" or "invalid". 

Though genoism (genetic discrimination) is outlawed, schools, colleges, and employers use genetics in their selection process by sampling saliva from envelopes, skin cells from handshakes, or using an otherwise legal drug screening. The main character, a man born without the aid of genetic engineering, states:

"I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science."

The story follows his quest to impersonate an individual with superior genes and fake his way into Gattaca - an elite space agency.

The culture of competition in Gattaca is the same type of environment that leads to cheating in our world. Environments where students or employees believe that even a small gain will give them a competitive edge cultivates cheating. This is especially true when individuals see little importance in their work (e.g. students aren't focused on learning and think they are doing busy work, employees don't see the harm in fudging numbers). Factor in the belief that everyone around you is cheating (as was the case at Stuyvesant High and Harvard), and you've created an environment where it's hard not to cheat.

What's brilliant about Gattaca is that you end up cheering for a character that breaks all rules and cheats his way into an exclusive institution. Why? Because there is no way to succeed in Gattaca without cheating, which is usually what cheaters say when they get caught

Who's to blame?

Would you give your children genetic enhancements like additional fingers if it helped them become elite musicians? 

Would you give your children genetic enhancements like additional fingers if it helped them become elite musicians? 

Who's responsible for what seems to be an epidemic of cheating? I can't point at any one person - students, parents, schools, universities, athletes, and the private sector are all facing very high expectations for achievement. In every domain of our lives, we've become very good at measuring success and that's created fierce competition. Yes, there are individual reasons why people cheat (like preparation, perspective, and personality) and I've singled out environmental causes here, but we're all at fault, which of course means no one group is responsible.

Fighting cheating

The research is clear - the best way to limit cheating is by:

  1. reducing competition
  2. fostering a culture of integrity and learning
  3. enforcing rules vigilantly and equally
Despite extensive security, "borrowed ladders" allowed non-genetically engineered humans to fake their way through society.

Despite extensive security, "borrowed ladders" allowed non-genetically engineered humans to fake their way through society.

This is all easier said than done. I'm guilty of plagiarizing in middle and high school (and that was before Wikipedia). One of my teachers even caught me red-handed, yet I faced zero consequences. While I never cheated in college or grad school (at that point I cared about what I was learning and feared strict university enforcement), I remained silent when I saw someone cheat in a class because I didn't want to be a "snitch". A friend of mine once confessed to cheating on her engineering tests because of strict curved grading. I've heard similar stories from law students, whose final rankings determine job prospects and salaries. Even as a professor, I was once asked by a colleague not to confront a student for cheating because that student "may start a lawsuit against the university". On both sides, it's very hard to uphold academic integrity.

In my own courses, I've decided to change the way I measure success. Instead of asking for facts, dates, and vocabulary, I test my students' ability to apply and critique information they have learned (something they can't scribble on a cheat sheet). Gattaca suggests a similar solution - assess one's perseverance, dreams, and contributions to society. Perhaps a larger discussion about what success really means is one way we can begin changing our culture of competition and cheating.

What has your experience been with cheating? What do you think can be done to stop it?