Students with Dark Triad traits don’t feel responsible for their own learning, making them more likely to cheat

By Emma Young

Plagiarism and cheating are persistent problems in higher education, note the authors of a new paper in Personality and Individual Differences. Better ways of combatting academic misconduct are clearly needed. And in their paper, Guy J. Curtis at the University of Western Australia and colleagues report that they’ve found one: encouraging students to take personal responsibility for their own learning.

Recent work has consistently linked various forms of cheating to higher scores on the “Dark Triad” personality traits of psychopathy, Macchiavelianism and narcissism, and also to stronger feelings of “academic entitlement”. Academically entitled students believe that they deserve special or better treatment than is typically given to others. As the researchers explain, this can involve a number of distinctly unappealing beliefs: that the student deserves above average grades, no matter what effort they put in; that instructors should be at their beck and call; and that when their assignments are marked, everyday problems should be regarded as reasons to up their grade. (Sound familiar? I can think of a number of academic friends who would immediately agree.)

Work to date has viewed the Dark Triad and academic entitlement as distinct factors that link independently to academic misconduct. But Curtis and his colleagues wondered if Dark Triad traits might in fact drive feelings of academic entitlement, which then drives misconduct. As they write: “Feelings of entitlement may stem from narcissistic perceptions that one should be treated as ‘special’, Machiavellian motivations to ‘get ahead’, or psychopathic disregard for the feelings of others.”

To explore this, they recruited 387 undergraduate students from three universities in Perth. The students completed scales that assessed Dark Triad traits, feelings of academic entitlement, and academic misconduct (they used a five-point scale to report on how regularly they “used notes during a closed-book exam”, for example).

As the team expected, they found positive correlations between scores on all three scales. But a deeper analysis of the data revealed that the link between higher scores on each of the Dark Triad traits and academic misconduct was driven by one of two aspects of academic entitlement: “externalised responsibilities”. A student who feels this way believes (implicitly or explicitly) that responsibility for learning lies less with them, and more with others. So, for example, if they miss a class, they might feel that it’s their tutor’s responsibility to get them the notes, not their own.

The other aspect of academic entitlement is “entitled expectations” — feeling that a professor must be entertaining to be good, or that they deserve lenient grading, for example. Why wasn’t this aspect, too, linked to misconduct? The researchers suggest that students with entitled expectations might think that any failure to meet them justified cheating, but if these expectations are actually being met, that justification isn’t there. In a student’s mind, though, externalised responsibilities might justify cheating no matter how their tutors behave: “If learning, per se, is not seen as the student’s responsibility, then taking shortcuts in assessment, such as cheating, may be considered acceptable,” the team writes.

One note of caution about the results: the students all self-reported their past cheating, plagiarism, and so on. As the team notes, it’s highly likely that they under-reported these behaviours. But that doesn’t change the main thrust of their findings. And they do suggest a potential route to reducing misconduct: if students who score relatively highly on psychopathy, Machiavellianism or narcissism (or all three) can be convinced to take responsibility for their own learning, the link between the Dark Triad and misconduct could be broken. “Our findings suggest that educators and institutions should communicate to students their personal responsibility for their academic success,” the team concludes.

Entitlement mediates the relationship between dark triad traits and academic misconduct

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