An imaginary barrier cast with a toy wand is enough to stop children from cheating during exams, a new study shows.
In experiments, psychologists demonstrated that a theoretical line was enough to prevent kids from sneaking a look at answers to a maths test on an adjacent table.
Researchers tested hundreds of children in several different scenarios separating them from the clearly visible answers – including using a metal barrier containing a transparent plastic sheet, a barrier with an empty frame and no barrier at all.
Just the concept of a magical invisible barrier, cast with a toy wand by the experimenters, discouraged cheating by more than 20 per cent, they found.
The metal barrier was also found to prevent the kids from taking a peep at the answers during experiments, despite not obscuring them.
Regardless of whether a barrier is real or symbolic, it can reduce the rate of cheating in exams and influence honesty, the researchers conclude.
Rather than spending time and effort constructing wooden or cardboard partitions to separate young students during a test, an unobtrusive barrier or even a toy wand may do the trick, they suggest.
‘When giving tests, teachers may consider making simple changes, like setting up tape lines between students to remind them not to copy from each other’s answers,’ said Kang Lee of the University of Toronto.
‘If we start such practices when children are young, it may encourage honesty, and lead to habits associated with less cheating in high school and college.’
The research team – made up of psychologists from the University of California San Diego, Hangzhou Normal University and the University of Toronto – conducted the experiments with 350 children in China, aged 5 to 6 years old.
The children sat an exam with either a metal frame supporting a sheet of transparent plastic between them and the answers on the next table; just the metal frame (without the plastic sheet); no barrier at all; or, in a magical twist, an imaginary barrier cast with a toy wand.
It was guaranteed that the children would be tempted to cheat because the last question of the maths test was too difficult, making the test impossible for them to complete in the allotted time.
While none of the four settings made it harder to cheat, the barriers proved to effectively reduce cheating – defined as peaking at the answer sheet, as observed by a hidden camera when the experimenter was away.
When there was no frame in place, the young participants cheated around 50 per cent of the time.
However, this fell to around 16 per cent when a frame with the plastic film was separating them from the answers, 27 per cent for the metal frame without the plastic sheet and 26 per cent for the magically-conjured ‘imagined frame’.
They also found the barrier – the one that actually physically existed – had to be between the child and the answer sheet on the next table.
Barriers placed on the other side of the child or other parts of the room didn’t encourage honest behaviour.
Compared with a no-barrier condition, children cheated significantly less often when a barrier was strategically placed to divide the space.
This effect was seen both when the barrier took a physical form and when it was purely symbolic.
It’s likely that most of the children wanted to get a high score to impress the experimenter, which suggests that the desire to impress other people, even strangers, drives human behaviour from an early age.
The study illustrates the power of ‘nudges’, a theory popularised by US economist Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017.
Nudge theory proposes that by providing subtle behavioural cues or ‘nudges’, society can be encouraged to make the right decisions, rather than the simple and often morally wrong ones.
‘[Nudges have been] shown to be effective at getting adults to behave in desirable ways,’ said study lead author Gail Heyman, professor of psychology in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences.
‘It also suggests that people’s ideas about morality are deeply rooted in how they think about space.
‘This is probably why there are so many spatial metaphors for morality such as “cross the line” and “keep on the straight and narrow”.’
The study also advances the researchers’ ‘moral barrier hypothesis’ that moral violations can be halted by spatial boundaries.
This relates to theories in architecture that physical environments and their contents can affect human behaviour by offering powerful cues, such rope lines at airports that signal where people should wait in line, or, as we’re experiencing today, markers on the ground that signify a two-metre distance.
But the findings surprised the researchers because it seems even young children can quickly pick up on unfamiliar and subtle environmental cues to guide their moral behaviour.
They don’t necessarily need to see others follow these cues or to be explicitly reminded of their presence – factors we commonly associate with a child’s behavioural development.
‘Our findings suggest that we can use nudges to encourage positive behaviours and discourage negative behaviours,’ said Professor Heyman.
These nudges can be simple, like encouraging hand-washing by posting illustrations of people washing their hands, or painting a colourful path from the toilet to the sink in school bathrooms.
The study has been detailed further in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.