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The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead

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The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, by David Callahan

The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, by David Callahan

It may have occurred to you that there seems to be a lot more cheating and dishonesty in American society today than there was in the past. If so, you aren’t simply imagining things — there is strong evidence for a decline in people’s willingness to be honest and this does not bode well for America’s future. If we are to prevent things from getting worse, however, we need to figure out what exactly is going on and why the change has occurred.

Summary

Title: The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead
Author: David Callahan
Publisher: Harcourt
ISBN: 0151010188

Pro:
• Good resource on corruption in a variety of fields
• Maddening stories of horrible dishonesty, intriguing explanations and excuses by the cheaters
• Religion is not offered as an antidote to cheating

Con:
• No predictions and scientific tests to evaluate Callahan’s main thesis
• No comparisons with cheating in other nations

Description:
• Exploration of how and why people cheat more in America today
• Argues that hyper-competitive environment makes cheating more attractive
• Suggests some possible solutions for beginning to reverse the cheating trends

Book Review

Some Christians might argue that any increase in dishonesty is simply an expression of humanity’s sinfulness and inability to act morally independent of God. Since Americans have become less Christian and more secular over time, of course things would be getting worse in America.

Yet a more useful analysis requires studying the situations in which people are less honest than in the past, the factors which might be contributing to this, and then look for commonalities and parallels.

This is precisely what David Callahan attempts to offer in his book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. Callahan interviewed numerous people around the country and studied patterns of cheating in contexts as diverse as school testing, corporate boardrooms, pharmaceutical sales, overbilling lawyers, and applications for learning deficiencies. If there is any commonality in the various forms of cheating occurring in these situations, Callahan believes that it involves America’s increasingly brutal competition in American society.

Callahan’s argument is deceptively simple but still compelling: in the American economy the benefits of “winning” have increased dramatically while the detriments of “losing” have worsened just as much. The middle ground of simply doing reasonably well has eroded. People are generally willing to follow laws they believe are legitimate and not cheat because the social and legal costs are too high.

Things change, however, when people perceive that laws or standards benefit some unjustly while the costs of not cheating rise. As a consequence, the desire to decease one’s chances of being one of the “losers” has grown so large that benefits of cheating have begun to outweigh the social, legal, and even ethical costs. Not cheating is perceived as something only chumps do.

Furthermore, as cheating increases, the chances of getting caught and/or being punished decrease (white-collar crime, which costs America billions each year, is far more lightly punished than average street crime). This creates a feedback loop in which cheating only becomes more desirable while not cheating becomes a sure way to lose.

When the “rules” of the game mean that many cheat and nearly all who cheat not only don’t get caught, but in fact benefit from it, the incentives to cheat are too high to resist. Basically honest people begin to cheat out of the very justified fear that, if they don’t, they’ll fall behind everyone else in today’s fast-moving economy.

The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, by David Callahan

The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, by David Callahan

Parents, for example, will do almost anything to help their kids succeed in getting admitted to a good school which can mean a tremendous difference in one’s lifetime earning potential. This only reinforces students’ perception that cheating is a necessity for getting ahead in life.

Where Callahan’s book shines is in how he amasses a wealth of examples of people cheating, often apparently for the reasons he argues for. This is also perhaps a bit depressing because you’ll read so many examples of cheating and dishonesty that you’ll just want to slap someone.

Where Callahan’s book falls short is the absence of any predictions and scientific tests that would lend something beyond anecdotes and reasoned speculation to his argument. It shouldn’t be hard to construct some decent tests for this — put people in situations where the costs of losing are small and then other situations where the costs are high and see what happens to the relative rates of cheating. If they follow the trends Callahan describes, his thesis will be greatly strengthened. Comparison studies with cheating in other nations would also be very helpful here.

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