To save your country, discipline school cheaters

If you agree that things have causes, and that really big things don’t just appear out of nowhere, you might find the following line of thought worth a thought.

Do you ever feel like your country is basically a bunch of cheats trying to swindle each other constantly, who have no regard for how things are supposed to work, and whose first reaction to every rule or social institution is “hmm how can I screw this over?”, including and especially when they’re put in charge of said social institutions and enforcing rules?

This sounds like a safe bet, given my large Eastern European and South American readership. You might also be wondering where the hell that came from and why your countrymen can’t be a little bit more like, say, the Finnish, or the Swiss. Or at least a bit less like Romulans.

Where is it coming from? People will say it’s in the culture, “in the air” – but how did it get there? And more importantly, what can you do to clean it off? Well, have I got an answer for you.

Think with me – when do people pick up moral rules and patterns of behaviour, when do they really internalise these things, including the wink-wink-nudge-nudge implicit rules?


When they’re kids, of course. Formative years.

And what is it that kids cheat at? School.

I am convinced this is a bigger problem than it might appear at first glance. People, especially young, impressionable people respond to punishment and reward, and we’re basically rewarding and reinforcing cheating by allowing it to be a winning strategy.

Operant conditioning 101.

Then people develop lifelong habits of cheating at everything else, which is an utterly perplexing and unforeseen development.

Big cheating starts with small cheating. Not tackling it in the root leads to something like background radiation permeating society, except it’s background shenanigans.

Now, in fairness, there are situations when almost everybody cheats.

Those are brilliant signals alerting us to something wrong in the education system that needs changing.

A prime example are life-determining, make-or-break, one-off exams.

Faced with such odds, practically everybody thinks: “This is a huge exam upon which my life hangs and surely a bit of cheating will only even the odds and do away with the randomness in something this important and momentous and life determining, right?”

Well, then we should probably not have entire-life-decided-by-this-piece-of-paper exams in the system to begin with, and have a more objective and representative evaluation system, shouldn’t we?

At least make them retakeable, or best of three, or whatever. Let people retake any big exam at any time, so that their record shows how well they understand something now, not how badly they understood it five years ago.

Then we won’t tempt essentially honest kids to cheat just to save themselves from the risk of drawing a bad question and being garbage collectors for the rest of their lives.

Another good example is lazily-taught history, with tests centered on memorising contextless dates and names that everybody will forget within five minutes, instead of a systemic understanding of how things generally went down. That’s when everybody, including the clever and honest students, writes things down on skin and bits of paper and the desk and in phones and smartwatches and on the insides of their eyelids. When virtually everybody has to do that to pass, the examination method is probably rather idiotic by definition. So change it.

As behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely illustrated on the example of putting locks on doors, you’re not designing incentives and social cues around the single-digit percent hard core of genuine bad guys – those are merely to be identified and punished (more on that later). Neither are you primarily concerned with the also single-digit percent of moral saints. No, you should focus on the incentives and habits of the 90%+ of people who are basically good (or want to feel that they are good), but who may be tempted to cheat on a test (or try the door handle) when the payout is huge and the risk low, which right now it is.

Those people are the main consumers of moral user experience design in society.

Therefore, raise the risk.

I propose a three-strikes system against cheating:

Strike one – exam failed of course, big warning and note, and deep soul-talk from the headmaster/stress.

Strike two – exam failed, final grade reduced, permanent note in educational record, final warning.

Strike three – expulsion.

This way, we’re changing the risk/reward profile, and disincentivising dishonesty, rather than the opposite system we have now, where not-cheating is basically naive self-harm. Honest people are at a systematic disadvantage, unless they’re also proper geniuses.

The main thing to insure against, and pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a national mentality, is a moral race to the bottom, where morality becomes martyrdom. When cheating is so widespread it becomes coupled with FOMO (fear of missing out), and becomes a defensive necessity – not to get an advantage, but to avoid disadvantage, so that even decent people are basically forced to cheat to stand a chance – that’s when your national culture is screwed.

Jeitinho must go.

“Well what’s the harm in improving your grade?”

It’s not a victimless crime, okay? Education is necessarily competitive, and if a someone cheats their way into a scarce, privileged spot, that means someone else who deserves it more isn’t going. Then is anyone surprised they get incredibly dishonest politicians and managers who basically scam their way through life?

Of course they do. They’ve been doing it since age 6, and the consequences have been universally excellent for them.

Alongside its other functions, the education system serves to allocate privileges and opportunities to gifted students, and ultimately to guide them into powerful roles in society for the greatest social benefit.

When that process is subverted, the result is inefficiency, unfairness and mass incompetence in important positions.

Here’s a thought: you will want this distribution and allocation of privileges and opportunities to correlate positively with talent and moral caliber. Not with cheating and, to put it kindly, “social intelligence”. Revolutionary, I know.

It is actually revolutionary, because right now, the people buoyed up by the system are a mix of genuine talent and cheating idiots, and it is the latter who are at root of numerous social problems – people whose core and often sole skills are gaming the system, any system, and staying on the good side of authority figures.

Now, what kind of elites is that giving to soviety? (!!!) This is a typo that I am keeping.

The kind we have right now – of middling intelligence, but resourceful at kissing asses and gaming the rules. Pretentious, not-that-gifted fakers who go on to read the revolutionary vanGuardian or the New York Times and eat soy and pretend to give a toss, while continuing their main spiel of mainly gaming the system – any system. Mere elitists, light years removed from an actual meritocratic elite. Yuuuuge difference.

The last people you would want anywhere near positions of privilege or authority – but the first who will make a beeline for them using any means. The worst among them feel fully entitled to it.

And before you know it, Dolores Umbridge is in charge of Hogwarts.

For college, I (briefly) went to The Place That Trains the Nation’s Captains of Industry and Political Leaders (every country has one), and easily three quarters of my classmates were morons who cheated their way into decent grades without ever coming into more than a passing contact with the material. And tell you what, the country looks it.

When the people you’re explicitly grooming to become leaders, or at least high-skilled workers, get implicit signals that cheating is normal, even expected – and not doing it is silly self-sabotage – how can anyone be surprised the country is riddled with corruption and incompetence? They’re just doing what has been working for them since age 6. Solution: it must stop working.

The rectal spelunkers who hide scraps of paper about their persons, smiling innocently at teachers from the front row, and slither into selective programmes and events and student conferences, the Lisa Simpsons of the world, except with Bart’s intelligence, Hermione Grangers, except not really talented (i.e. Emma Watsons?) – making up in cheating what they lack in ability – those little shits are the scourge of civilisation.

I know this all from experience, because as a student, I was frequently one of the few people on these selective things who got there on a semblance of merit and a clear conscience.

Mediocricity + unbridled ambition + zero moral qualms = people whom society (that is, other people) should funnel into stone breaking and shit shovelling, not ministries and boards of directors.

It’s a smooth, continuous trajectory from notes on skin, through a plagiarised master’s thesis, to an embellished CV to a job at a massively influential institution, well-stocked with the money of the people who should be running it instead.

This is especially obvious at places like the EU and UN, where an inner circle of real-life supervillains surrounds themselves with sycophantic useful idiots who are grateful for being elevated above their natural station. But to be fair to the public sector, banks and really big companies operate on largely identical principles.

There’s one more consequent problem. If everyone cheats, we get an illusion that society is smarter than it really is, and a monstrous simulacrum of qualification in which everyone is pretending to be this brainy knowledge worker, but are really incompetent and bad at their jobs, and it’s a like a cathedral made of soft cheese. Potemkin’s knowledge economy.

Sounds like something you see every day?

Furthermore, education systems with lots of cheating don’t provide useful information for reforms or tweaks to the system to make it, you know, actually help educate students better.

Even that does not yet exhaust the issues. As Dan Ariely observed (and proved), it is human nature to rationalise even unfairly obtained advantage as actually deserved and fair. In controlled experiments, cheaters quickly came to believe that results they cheated for actually accurately reflected their abilities and knowledge.

Read that again and let it sink it.

This is how we get a civilisational scale Dunning-Kruger effect, and entitled, smug impostors instead of natural elites. Self-overestimation is a direct result of internalising and rationalising unfair benefits and privileges – whether granted, as part of the general culture of building self-esteem instead of teaching, or appropriated by cheating.

To top off the circus of gulag-worthy absurdity, such over-rewarded self-overestimators are prone to actually feeling underappreciated and even oppressed – the situation now prevalent on many western university campuses.

If you’re convinced the wrong people are in charge in your country, city or company, look at them and tell me how likely it is they cheated in school – or more accurately, cheated their way through school, and then everything else.

Of course they did.

And since they were not caught or sufficiently punished, they stuck with the habit and general moral outlook, and slithered into positions way beyond their merit or abilities – at the expense of better qualified and more ethical candidates.

Those little pieces of paper dangling from people’s sleeves are, surprisingly, one of the biggest problems of civilisation. Butterfly wings starting city-flattening typhoons.

I’m not saying that punishing cheaters more severely will magically solve all of society’s flaws, but it will definitely help raise kids to be more honest, and on a practical level, significantly reduce the danger that a cheating idiot will scam his (or her) way into an important position.

Hopefully, this realization is one of the things that once seen, cannot be unseen.

Incompetent leadership is a downstream problem directly derived from pandemic cheating, which starts early in school.

If you want to save society, you might consider buying me a beer.