10/14/2012 03:27 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2012

Why Are We Obsessed With Cheaters?

It looks like this summer's rampant plagiarism will continue through the fall.

The weather might be turning cooler, but as new developments and revelations continue to surface, it's clear that the coverage and discussions of the pervasiveness of cheating and plagiarism are still hot -- and far from over.

On Friday, The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Peter Berg, the writer and director of the film and TV series Friday Night Lights, accused Governor Mitt Romney of plagiarizing the series' trademark phrase ("Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can't Lose.") in his stump speeches. Berg sent Romney a cease-and-desist letter, writing: "Please come up with your own campaign slogan."

To boot, in other recent plagiarism news, The Huffington Post reported on September 25 that Jonah Lehrer is already at work on a piece about his own plagiarism scandal. And on the same day, The New York Times published another installment of its ongoing investigation into the rampant cheating at Stuyvesant High School in New York, this time delving into the specifics of how and why these students cheat.

Taken together, these past warm months have been especially riddled with revelations of academic dishonesty. And the scandals have been extensively covered by the media -- right alongside national news of a polarizing Presidential race, a war in Afghanistan, an economic crisis, and tragic, senseless shootings.

In his September 10 piece, The Poynter Institute's Craig Silverman provides a comprehensive timeline of cheating incidents since June, a period he dubs "journalism's summer of sin," and calls for greater transparency in news organizations.

It's also worth noting that the coverage and buzz surrounding some of this summer's scandals was particularly frenetic and relentless. Furthermore, the dishonesty extended beyond the realm of journalism, permeating academics. To name a few of this summer's notorious and most-covered cases of plagiarism and cheating:

  • On June 17, Wall Street Journal intern and former Yale Daily News staff reporter Liane Membis was accused of fabricating quotations for an online Journal post, and was fired.
  • On June 20, amid a flurry of accusations, Jonah Lehrer admitted to recycling his own material in blog posts for The New Yorker, where he was a staffer. This was just the beginning of Lehrer's scandalous summer: On July 30, in response to new allegations, Lehrer admitted he was guilty of fabricating quotations attributed to Bob Dylan in his bestselling book, Imagine. He resigned from The New Yorker the same day. Then on August 31, announced it had dissolved its contractual relationship with Lehrer. The site, which had featured Lehrer's personal blog, Frontal Cortex, cited "violations of editorial standards" in at least seven of Lehrer's posts.
  • On July 9, school administrators at the high-performing Stuyvesant High School in New York voided the exams of 70 students after they were caught sharing test answers via smartphones.
  • On August 10, Fareed Zakaria apologized for lifting language from Jill Lepore's April 23 New Yorker article in his TIME column, insisting that he had made an honest note-taking error. After a brief suspension from both TIME and CNN, Zakaria was reinstated at both news outlets.
  • On August 31, about 125 Harvard students were implicated in a cheating scandal that allegedly took place during final exams this past spring; the university claims that students in a U.S. Congress class collaborated in a way that violated the rules of the exam -- which was open-book, open-note, and open-internet, but which students were to complete independently. But some students believe the rules were vague and confusing from the get-go. (It's still unclear what repercussions students might face, but both basketball co-captains, Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, voluntarily withdrew from the school for the year in connection with the scandal. The rumor is that some other students might be asked to "take a year off.")
  • And on September 6, The Columbia Spectator retracted a piece by associate editor Jade Bonacolta that contained passages nearly identical to a September 4 New York Times article. The Spectator quickly dropped Bonacolta from the masthead.

Over the past several months, I've read dozens of articles about these various cheating incidents. I've pored over the original and plagiarized texts side-by-side. I've read Editor's Notes and comment sections.

A recurring theme in the conversations I had this summer with family, friends, and colleagues is that these incidents are not only disheartening, but several of them seem to have been puzzlingly ill-conceived: just as the internet facilitates access to source materials, it also of course provides an instant means of fact-checking.

It takes one Google search to catch someone who lifts material from a publication like The New York Times or The New Yorker. Sources can easily be contacted and quotations quickly verified. University administrators can search school email accounts for evidence. In 2012, this is surely common knowledge.

Which has led me to debate with the people around me our own amateur psychoanalyses of these writers -- was Zakaria careless, desperate, or both? Was Lehrer self-sabotaging, or in denial?

Our conclusions, like the evidence at hand, are murky at best.

What is clear, however, is that these allegations of academic dishonesty both repulse and fascinate us as a society (especially when they involve students at elite schools, or high-profile journalists).

Indeed, perhaps as striking as the acts themselves is our collective urge to dissect these recent transgressions and compare their respective severity. We want to pardon some acts and vilify others. We feel the need to place them somewhere on a spectrum from "inoffensive" to "egregious" -- and the recent influx of examples certainly invites these comparisons.

For example, in the article (Tablet, July 30) where he broke the news of Lehrer's fabricated quotations, Michael Moynihan argues that Lehrer's invention of these Dylan soundbites constitutes a far graver offense than did Lehrer's earlier self-plagiarism debacle in June.

Moynihan writes:
"A month ago, when Lehrer's self-plagiarism scandal emerged, some supporters argued that it was simply the misstep of a young journalist. But making up sources, deceiving a fellow journalist, and offering accounts of films you have never seen and emails never exchanged, is, to crib Bob Dylan, on a whole other level" [emphasis mine].

Similarly, in his August 19 New York Times article, "Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth," David Carr compares Lehrer's scandal with Zakaria's: Carr argues that Lehrer's premeditated fabrication of quotations is a much more serious offense than Zakaria's supposedly sloppy note-keeping, and should be treated as such.

Carr writes:
"Because of a quirk of timing, the blogger-author-speaker's troubles have been conflated with those of Fareed Zakaria ... but that is where the similarities end. As was once explained to me by no less an authority than Ruth Shalit, the notorious tyro [i.e., novice] offender of Washington journalism, there is a big difference between being a plagiarist -- at bottom, lazy or sloppy -- and being a fabulist" [emphasis mine].

I agree, for the most part, with Moynihan's and Carr's characterizations of these offenses. But how and why do we rank instances of cheating the way that we do? Why do many of us, for example, feel that Zakaria's actions were less reprehensible than Lehrer's?

There appears to be a complex "taxonomy of cheating" underlying our reactions -- one that accounts for different "levels" and "species" of dishonesty, and thereby sheds light upon our various emotional responses to these incidents.

In general, our default attitude towards any given writer or journalist -- professional, student, or amateur -- tends to be one of relative trust.

So when we expose cheaters, we can't help but reflect, even if only subconsciously, on our own cognitive abilities. Do we interpret cheaters' scheming as an attack on our own reasoning skills?

Perhaps. In short, while I'm not a psychologist, I believe we're subconsciously preoccupied with the lengths to which the cheater went to trick us; specifically, with the cheater's thought process, and with which of our cognitive skills we perceive the cheater to be "testing."

The first metric we might use to evaluate a cheater is whether the act was premeditated. Yet except in extreme cases such as the self-described cheaters at Stuyvesant, it's often hard to tell. For example, to what extent can we hold the "multitasking" Zakaria accountable for the supposed deadline pressure and overscheduling that resulted in his oversight? He might not have planned to plagiarize, but Zakaria admits that he planned poorly in general.

Of course, both planned and unplanned acts of cheating are problematic. Yet we tend to judge premeditated acts more harshly and acts rooted in sloppiness (or desperation) less so: both TIME and CNN gave Zakaria the benefit of the doubt and quickly reinstated him.

We also tend to categorize cheaters into different "species."

There are the copy-pasters: Lehrer (in his blog posts), Zakaria, and Bonacolta. As readers, we might project that cheaters in this category ask us: "Can you tell from my writing that I didn't come up with these ideas on my own?"

Then there are the alleged exam collaborators: The Harvard students accused of violating the instructions for a take-home exam; the Stuyvesant students who readily admit to taking part in the organized sharing of exam answers and homework assignments. Collaborators seem to ask: "Can you tell from our supposedly 'individual' responses that a group of us in fact worked together?"

And then there are the fabulists like Membis and Lehrer, who invent -- or heavily manipulate -- quotations and sources. They seem to ask: "Can you tell that I made this up entirely?"

If we initially fail to pick up on the signals, our anger at the cheaters' moral betrayal (once their actions are exposed) is compounded by our frustration at having missed the signs, and our taking offense at the writer's show of nerve and disrespect.

The fabulists appall us most because the ability to distinguish truth from fiction is a basic, evolutionarily crucial skill. (By contrast, the ability to identify plagiarized text or monitor students' exam practices is not.) Any emotional slack we might otherwise cut the fabulist is canceled by the full force of the realization that a liar has made fools of us.

As a society, we place such a premium on ferreting out the truth and exposing liars that we largely leave the task to professionals: the media.

When a prominent writer like Lehrer sells hundreds of thousands of copies of a book before it is revealed to contain fabricated quotations, he's slipped one past the media. Big time.

So the media, ever determined to even the score, won't let it go. And they work even harder to discover and expose the next cheating scandal more quickly than the last.

If this fall is any indication, we might be heading for a long winter of plagiarism, too.