Even Imaginary Barriers Can Prevent Kids From Cheating On Tests

By Emma Young

How can you discourage kids from copying each other on tests? You could always use a simple frame to separate them, or even a ruler to draw an imaginary line between their desks. When these behavioural “nudge” techniques were used in new research published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, they significantly reduced cheating among 5 to 6-year-olds. This shows “that even seemingly unremarkable features of children’s environments can nudge them to act honestly,” write the researchers, led by Li Zhao at Hangzhou Normal University in China.

The team set out to explore the extent to which a physical, spatial barrier might also act as a barrier against moral transgressions. In each of a series of four studies, a child was seated a small table and given a set of counting problems, which were impossible to complete in the allotted time. A short distance away was another identical table, on which the experimenter put the answer sheet before leaving the room. Though all the children were instructed not to cheat, from a purely practical perspective, it was easy to do so. In fact, in the control conditions, when there was no barrier (real or imaginary) between the child’s table and the answers, hidden cameras showed that about half did indeed look at the answers.

However, the team found that a barrier of some sort did make a difference. In the first study, a metal frame either fitted with transparent plastic cheating or simply left empty was placed between the tables. In both scenarios, the child could easily see the answers if they wanted to — but the frame with the sheeting cut the cheating rate to about 15%, while the empty frame reduced cheating to just under 30%.

In the second and third studies, the team moved the barrier into a variety of positions around the tables. They found that to reduce cheating, the barrier had to be in the child’s eye line when they looked towards the other table.

In the fourth study, there was no physical barrier at all. Instead, before leaving the room, the experimenter used a toy magic wand to outline what she said was an “invisible frame” between the tables. This imaginary barrier was about as effective as the empty frame was in the first study at reducing cheating.

Why did a simple frame, and even an imaginary frame, reduce cheating? One possibility, the researchers say, is that from a very young age, children learn to use environmental cues to guide their movements. So, for example, they might learn that while it’s okay to play football in an open park, it’s not okay to pass through a gate in a neighbour’s fence, to play football in their garden. It’s possible that children generalised this type of learning, viewing the barriers as dividers between a permissible space and a prohibited space.

In English, of course, we even talk about “crossing the line” between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. (I seem to tell my children that they’ve crossed the line on an almost daily basis.) These were Chinese children. I don’t know if Mandarin has the equivalent metaphor, but if it does, this might have influenced their children’s behaviour — or, if the study were to be replicated in an English-speaking country, perhaps cheating might be reduced still further.

As the team notes, though the frame was always in place when the child sat down, and the experimenter didn’t even refer to it (except for when it was imaginary), the children may well have made the implicit assumption that someone had put it there for a reason — presumably to stop them from cheating. So kids’ ability to tap into this sort of social cue could be part of the reason why they were less inclined to cheat.

This study was on young children. Would a physical barrier have the same impact on cheating in older kids? In this study, older children had a higher rate of cheating than younger children (no matter what the experimental condition) — but the frames were just as effective at reducing cheating, no matter what the child’s age. So it’s possible that older children would be susceptible to the frame effect, too.  

More work is clearly needed to examine the specific mechanisms that underlie the new findings, and to explore just how barriers might be used in real classrooms and exam halls.

The moral barrier effect: Real and imagined barriers can reduce cheating

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest