Tuesday, May 01, 2007

What do the NYT article on the MBA cheating scandal and the WSJ article on accounting rules vs. standards have in common?

If you combine today's New York Times story on a cheating scandal at Duke (34 Duke Business Students Face Discipline for Cheating) with yesterday's Wall Street Journal story on the difference between using rules or standards in accounting regulation (What's Better in Accounting: Rules or 'Feel'?), you get a sinking feeling that using anything (rules OR standards) to regulate business will still lead to parsing beyond the regulation's intent. That's always been true, and it will always be true. Humans have quite a way of justifying their behavior to fit their desires. Take this excerpt from the NYT article today:

National surveys have suggested that cheating is widespread among graduate students. In a survey released last September by a Rutgers University professor, 56 percent of business graduate students admitted having cheated, compared with 54 percent in engineering, 48 percent in education and 45 percent in law school. More than 5,300 students at 54 universities were surveyed from 2002 to 2004.

“This is self-reported evidence of cheating, so it’s probably underestimated,” said Donald McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers who oversaw the survey.

“I would say at many business schools it is a part of the culture,” Dr. McCabe said. "You want to talk rationalizations? I could give you thousands of them: everybody else does it, it’s the teachers’ fault, you have to do it to get ahead.”

Do the students know that they're cheating? Of course they do. But cognitive dissonance is such a powerful drive in humans that--as Dr. McCabe says--they rationalize their cheating.

What should we do about the problem of cognitive dissonance? Bad news: there's nothing that we can do about it. It's part of our being human. The best we can do is to create an increased social pressure to educate people about the norms of behavior. We can't just say "don't cheat." We have to demonstrate that there is a social consequence for cheating, and that our community will not tolerate it. Pretending that rules (or standards) will change behavior all on their own is just whistling in the dark.

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