Are Smarter Kids More Likely to Cheat?

posted: 10/26/17
by: Amanda Mushro
classroom with two kids students cheating on test exam at school


No parent wants to receive the phone call from their child's school saying their kid was caught cheating. But a new study reveals the reason children cheat might not have anything to do with how prepared they are for the test but how often we tell them they're smart.

According to a new study, children that are praised often for being smart are more likely to cheat and be dishonest when it comes to academics. The study found this to be true for kids even as young as three-years-old.

For the study,300 preschool aged students were examined. The 150 three-year-olds and 150 five-year-olds were observed using what the study authors call a "peeking paradigm" to record their reactions. Researchers hid a playing card behind a barrier so the children could not see the card. Children were asked to guess whether the hidden card was greater or less than six. If they guessed correctly three times, children were told they would receive a prize. However, the game was rigged and the preschoolers would only win two times. So how did the kids react when they were told not to cheat but were left with an opportunity to cheat?

Researchers found very different reactions from the control group, that received absolutely no praise, and the other group, who were praised for their intelligence or performance with phrases such as 'You're so smart' and 'You did very well this time.'

In the middle of the game, researchers told the children they needed to step outside of the room for just a moment, but before leaving, they asked the children to not peak at the cards. With hidden cameras, researchers watched the children's reactions.

Turns out both the three and five-year-olds who'd received praise for being smart were more likely to cheat and act dishonestly. Researchers noted the results were the same for boys and girls in this age group.

While this study is interesting, it can leave parents scratching their heads. Should we not tell our kids they're smart? "It's common and natural to tell children how smart they are," said Gail Heyman co-author of the study. "Even when parents and educators know that it harms kids' achievement motivation, it's still easy to do. What our study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well."

So what should we say to our kids? Researchers suggest we praise specific behavior rather than use blanket statements. So tell your kids "I love how hard you worked on this assignment" or "You really did a great job on this test."

"We want to encourage children. We want them to feel good about themselves," says study co-author Kang Lee. "But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behavior. Only in this way will praise have the intended positive outcomes."

While I always find these types of studies fascinating, when it comes to this research, I think I'll stick to telling my kids they are smart and reminding them not cheat. I'll let you know how my own study turns out.