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Even an imaginary partition can deter children from cheating on tests: U of T, international researchers

The researchers, including U of T's Kang Lee, demonstrated that the mere idea of a barrier placed between a child taking a math test and the answer key discouraged cheating (photo by Martine Ducet via Getty Images)

A new study by an international team of researchers, which includes the University of Toronto’s Kang Lee, found that see-through partitions – and even imaginary ones – can deter children from cheating on tests.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that simple environmental cues can nudge children to do the right thing.

In four experiments with 350 children in China, aged five to six, the researchers demonstrated that the mere idea of a barrier, either simple metal frames or clear plastic, placed between a child taking a math test and the answer key discouraged cheating. The “barriers,” which didn't physically make it more difficult to cheat, nevertheless significantly reduced the incidence of cheating from a baseline of about 50 per cent to between about 20 per cent and 30 per cent. Even an imaginary barrier, outlined in the air with a toy “magic wand,” had a similar effect.

“Our work illustrates the power of ‘nudges,’ which Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler has shown to be effective at getting adults to behave in desirable ways,” said lead author Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. “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 extends prior research on children’s moral behaviour, Heyman said, and it advances the researchers’ “moral barrier hypothesis,” that “moral violations can be inhibited by the introduction of spatial boundaries.”


The children in the study were tempted to cheat because the last answer on the math test was too difficult for them, making it impossible for them to complete in the allotted time. However, the barrier had to be between the child and the answer key. Barriers placed on the other side of the child or other parts of the room didn’t encourage honest behaviour.


The study confirms the centuries-old assumption in architecture that physical environments can affect human behaviour, which is one of the reasons companies spend so much time and money on designing workspaces. There’s also evidence of just how powerful these cues can be in our daily life, such as when rope lines at airports signal where people should wait in line or social distancing circles signal how far apart people should stand.

Lee, a professor in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s department of applied psychology and human development, says that parents and teachers can use environmental design for moral education.

He notes that the findings could help teachers discourage cheating.

“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,” he said. “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 findings surprised the researchers, Heyman said, because it seems even young children have the ability to quickly pick up on unfamiliar and subtle environment 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.

First author Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University said the researchers were also “surprised to see academic cheating among children as young as five years old, especially given the lack of obvious incentives for them to do so.” The researchers guessed that the children wanted to get a high score to impress the researchers, which suggests that the desire to impress other people – even strangers – drives human behaviour starting in early childhood.

“Our findings suggest that we can use nudges to encourage positive behaviours and discourage negative behaviours,” Heyman said. The nudges can be simple, she said, 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. Another daily example is encouraging children to eat a more nutritious diet by leaving out sliced vegetables and fresh fruit.