Dhookan cheated for a reason. She was under pressure to be productive, to work quickly. She wanted to excel, or seem to excel, in her job. The Globe quotes John McShane, a senior instructor in identification techniques at the American Chemical Society, as saying, "You are judged by numbers in the lab. There is a culture of pressure to get it done with no new resources." (McShane goes on to add that the pressure is no excuse to cheat.)
So Dhookan cheated because it would help her get ahead, and because she could. Insufficient supervision, according to the Globe article, facilitated her deceit and sloppy procedures.
There's always a reason to cheat. Recently, Harvard College, Stuyvesant High School, and the College Board (who bring us the SAT college admissions test) have suffered from well-publicized cheating scandals.
The Harvard case is the least clear. A reputedly easy government course that traditionally allowed group work suddenly disallowed it on a take-home final exam. Apparently some students didn't take the change of policy seriously. Maybe they didn't think the change of policy was fair. The class included lots of athletes who had expected an easy A, including co-captains of the college basketball team. College athletics is demanding and exhausting, and working together on the test no doubt seemed an easy and not-so-terribly-bad way to get a good grade while still playing hard. The take-home exam provided an easy opportunity.
As for the Stuyvesant cheating scandal, one ex-student who was not involved wrote to the New York Times,
When the difference between a 93 and a 94 means the difference between an Ivy League school and a slightly lower ranked one, is it any wonder that students cheat? It is the mechanism of grading itself that incentivizes cheating.This writer blames the "false precision" of grading for the cheating epidemic. This is a terrible argument on two counts. First of all, a difference between a 93 or 94 on one test never determines what college you get into. This is just a story kids tell themselves. Second, schools, employers, colleagues, spouses, always make judgments about good and less good performance. There is always a line. In a track meet it may be a hundredth of a second. There is always very little difference between a performance just above or below the line. Does that mean everyone who falls below the line should cheat?
SAT scandals generally consist of some students hiring others to take the test in their place. As a Christian Science Monitor article notes of one such incident,
It’s also renewing concerns that the pressure placed on students to score well on a single test, which plays a big role in determining the academic future for so many high-schoolers, may be encouraging them to cheat.
Again, the argument is that it is the measure that is largely to blame for the cheating. There is something unfair or too pressured about how the measure is applied. Of course students will cheat. We wring our hands about how unfair the system is, and then we increase security at test sites.
All these cases of cheating seem to share one feature. The cheaters feel that something unfair about the evaluation process justifies them in cheating. If the world were just, they seem to imply, cheating would not be necessary.
Well, the world isn't just, and cheating is not necessary. I'm not going to argue that the SAT is a perfect test, that colleges are right to weigh small score differences in making judgments, that grading in high school is entirely objective or fair, or that state chemistry labs should continue to do more with less. I'm just pointing out that there's always a reason to cheat. People who cheat because they feel somehow aggrieved or justified in one situation are likely to feel just as aggrieved and justified in the next situation that allows cheating.
We've all cheated sometimes in our lives. I still remember peeking under the blindfold in Pin the Tail on the Donkey once at a birthday party to win the prize. I also remember that the prize wasn't that great and the burning feeling at the pit of my stomach lasted all day. Today I park at a meter even when I don't have enough quarters, and I hope I don't get caught. Some of us cheat on our taxes (I don't) or on tests (I don't). But we shouldn't fool ourselves that the "reason" for our cheating lies out there somewhere. The temptation lies out there; the opportunity lies out there; the excuse lies out there. The reason lies inside ourselves, in our hopes to get an advantage over others. If we don't recognize that reason inside us and struggle against us, we all risk betraying those who trust us and making ruins of our lives and reputations.