Are We Helpless to Incentives?

Aspen Moraif- Mr. Aparicio

Honor Bound

The curious and powerful nature of incentives has bewildered governments and societies a like for decades. In the American schooling system today, there is an incredible increase in cheating, one that has shocked educators into further investigating the root of the problem, and the reason they find is the incentive. Today, the importance to academically succeed is exponentially greater than that when the educators were teens. Other countries like South Korea have remarkably impressive testing scores. However, behind the scores lies an untold story of the high incentive to succeed in Korean society. The haunting question, though, is: are we all condemned to cheat if the incentive is high enough? Have we no moral strength instilled in us to protect us from potential sin for the sake of a powerful incentive?

The high pressure on teens to succeed academically today has never been higher. The recent statistics from a survey done by Psychology Today show 76 percent of high school students admit to some sort of cheating [1].  In a group of 279 bright young college students attending an Intro to Government class at Harvard University, the instructor suspected that 125 students plagiarized answers and collaborated outside of class. Nearly half of the class felt compelled to cheat which could very well be a sign of the times. To test the theory that half the class was cheating, the professor gave the students a take home exam in which they could use whatever means they would like to find the answers—except their peers. To the instructor’s dismay, the same overwhelming number of students had phrases copied verbatim on multiple exams. Because the cheating was drastically widespread, the decision was made to publish the investigation at Harvard to raise attention nationwide to the growing dilemma of cheating [2].

If the students had been caught, they potentially could have been kicked out. The bewildering part of this story is that these students are attending Harvard, one of the most acclaimed universities in the United States, so it could be assumed that these students are incredibly talented and ambitious with an almost guaranteed bright future ahead of them.  So we must ask ourselves, why is it that these students who seem to be so wonderful, feel so compelled to cheat, even at the risk of having to drop out? The only reasonable solution is that they believed what they were risking by cheating was worth the benefits they could receive by getting good grades. Basically, the cheating was worth the incentive.

When it comes to judging the morality of an act and the possible benefits it may create, there is no hiding the fact that students deem cheating a viable solution to the stress of their time. Denis Clark Pope of Stanford university argues “it’s not that they don’t know right from wrong. It’s that they see themselves as having no choice. They’ll say, ‘It’s not cheating, it’s survival.’” [3] This “survival” leads students to seemingly throw their morals out the window, not caring what immoralities they leave in their wake as long as they are on the path of academic success.

So what is this deterrent that is so horrible, or what incentive is so great that these students would cheat? Firstly, the idea among college students is that a college degree is one of the most significant factors in acquiring a job, and with the job market saturated with qualified candidates one can never be too safe. Unfortunately, according to Winograd, “the economic situation (of young adults) is completely parallel and analogous to the (Depression-era) GI generation — raised in relative affluence, and then just as they are to start in that affluent world, it all comes crashing down, and so they have to find new ways to persevere. They just have assumed that everything that came before them was a mirage — that it was false, built on unsafe foundations.” [4] Because of this, these students want to ensure their success in as many ways as they can, one of them being cheating.

This is not to be mistaken as a permissible excuse for such cheating but the ideology behind the students is spread all over the country. As one high schooler Spike says, “The pressure for good grades is high. Grades can determine your future, and if you fail this then you’re not going on to college, you’re going to work at McDonald’s and live out of a car.” [5] And the ideology continues on to college life. An academically successful business student said “everything is about the grade that you got in the class. Nobody looks at how you got it.” [6] He graduates in a few weeks and will go on to a job with a top business firm, living proof of a man choosing incentive over morals and becoming successful because of it.

But American’s are not alone in our behavior towards the new incentives for good grades in high school and college. South Korea is a country that is ranked first in the world for education. Their students score around 530 on every school subject on nationalized tests, and American’s average around 500 [7]. Though this country excels on paper, the real reason for their success is the dangerous incentive they have to succeed.

South Korea went from a country that had high illiteracy rates to one of the top educated countries in the world, and this dramatic change was anything but accidental. The fierce competition now felt by thousands of South Korean teens was intentionally implemented to raise the country out of its dark slump, but some may ask, when has the incentive gone too far?

The teenage years of a South Korean determine their fate for the rest of their lives. There is “an old rule of four versus five,” says South Korean high school student Oh Hyun Chul.  “You can enter the college you want if you sleep only four hours a day, but you won’t if you sleep five or more. You get used to it.” [8] The typical teen usually wakes up at 6:30 and studies before entering school at 7:10. After school, students attend private workshops with private tutors that usually release around 1:30 in the morning. This cycle repeats every day. This studying may seem ridiculously extreme, but it is one of the most important determinants of their future. “A worker’s salary, position and prestige in his 60s often have less to do with his job performance than with whether he passed an exam to enter an elite university when he was 19.” [9]

This amount of pressure on teens has caused suicide to be the second cause of death for students between ages 15-19, about eight out of every 100,000 students killed themselves in 2003. [10] This is all because of the incredible incentive to succeed and terrifying deterrent if they do not. They truly see no point of life if they do not get the life they had imagined for themselves. The incredible deterrent had left these teens seeing no value in their lives, they were past the point of no return, no moral awareness to intervene. Recently, schools began ranking the students which only made things worse, further showing how one solitary tweak to a system can change it dramatically, proving the curious nature of incentive. [11]

If economics represents the way things actually are and morality represents the way we wish things could be, as Freakenomics states, at what point will these two cross, or will morals and virtues never win out over the temptation of the incentive? At the rapid rate of growing competition and the growing importance of grades, should it be expected that competition will become so intense that we will completely forget about the morality of our acts and only think of the incentive or deterrent? Adam Smith disagrees. Quoted in Freakenomics, he said, “how selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” There is evidence to this statement in the Freakenomics reading. A man’s bagel business worked on an honor system, it left the payment up to the buyer, and he found that 87% of the time people paid for their bagels when they could have taken them for free. Though this does provide some solace that morals can win over the incentive, it is hard to say if the same set of morals would have won out if something more pricy were available on the honor system like a diamond necklace. Perhaps man is not completely slave to his desire, but with the right incentive, he just may be.



[1] LeMay

[2] LeMay

[3] LeMay

[4] LeMay

[5] LeMay

[6] LeMay

[7] Sang-Hun

[8] Sang-Hun

[9] Sang-Hun

[10] Sang-Hun

[11] Sang-Hun



Works Cited

In South Korea, students push back. Last modified May 9, 2005. Accessed June 27,



Pressure to Succeed In America Causing Academic Dishonesty. Accessed June 27, 2014. pressure-to-succeed-in-america-causing-academic-dishonesty/36674/.

Students Caught Cheating Picture. Accessed June 27, 2014.



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