Taking integrity to the gym

Taking Integrity to the Gym: Using the honour system and reducing cheating.

One night I was relaxing at home watching super star psychologist, Dr. Dan Ariely, talk about cheating in his documentary, The Truth About (Dis)honesty. His work is scientifically rigorous; his presentation is entertaining. (You can watch his documentary on Netflix).

After talking about all the many ways human of all genders and from all cultures engage in little — and big — cheats he presented one elegant solution that brought cheating to zero. That’s right ZERO. We psychologists almost never get any where near reducing undesirable behaviour to zero. So I paid attention.

Dr Ariely explained that if you have participants swear — on a bible, the U.S. constitution, or any similar ethical code — that oath was a game changer and enough to motivate people to keep integrity and act virtuously.

Our students at the Justice Institute of British Columbia in the Law Enforcement Studies program some day hope to be sworn law enforcement officers. Impeccable honesty is a corner stone moral conduct for officers. But how can students build their integrity muscles if the don’t have the opportunity to practice conducting themselves in an environment of trust, for example learning to be honourable during honour system opportunities. I had an obvious opportunity to try Dr. Ariely’s technique by offering honour system bonus point activities (worth up to a maximum 10% of the final grade).

The results were as predicted — success!

Law enforcement studies students HONOUR SYSTEM OATH

I someday aspire to be a law enforcement officer and take the following oath:

I swear/solemnly affirm that: I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors; I will, to the best of my power, cause the peace to be kept and prevent all offences against the persons and properties of Her Majesty’s subjects; I will faithfully, honestly and impartially perform my duties as a law enforcement officer. (B.C. Reg. 204/98; O.C. 723/98)

In preparation for the supreme integrity and honesty that will be expected of me in my future career, I am committed to conducting myself in my law enforcement studies accordingly. With the oath above in my mind, I affirm that I have been truthful, met all conditions, followed rules, and given credit for others work in the assignment, quiz, paper, exam, etc. I have —or am about to — complete.

(Sign your name here to so affirm)

Students feedback about the honour system bonus point activities and methodology.

Fourteen students out of 72 volunteered to give me anonymous feedback about the honour system in my Law enforcement in a diverse society course

The honour system opportunities benefited me personally

  • Strongly Agree N=4 28.57%
  • Agree N=8 57.14%
  • Neither Agree nor Disagree N=1 7.14%
  • Disagree N=1 7.14%

Here is one stand out anonymous comment from one of my students:

The honour system, however futile I believed it to be at the start of the semester, actually worked.



Dr. Jessica Motherwell McFarlane is a professional education consultant on gender, anti-oppression and social justice issues and a research associate at the Justice Institute of British Columbia. She is also the developer and director of the Life Outside the Box program that uses visual narratives as a way to SEE conflict and injustice from new perspectives. Jessica facilitates groups and schools needing to have complex — and sometimes emotionally painful — conversations. She offers workshops to at-risk children, youth, and adults on: Truth and Reconciliation, transforming bullying situations, and rehearsing best practices for self-care, inclusivity, and kindness.

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