Cheating typically starts in middle school as a way to rebel against authority. "It's a time when kids are starting to flex their muscles and friends are challenging them to be less deferential," says McCabe. He found that 66% of tweens admitted to cheating on exams, and 80% said they've let someone copy their homework. Because middle school students no longer have one teacher but several, they think they're less likely to get caught.
In high school cheating escalates as the stakes increase. Two types of dishonest students emerge: poor performers desperate to pass and high achievers driven to get a 4.0 grade average. "As often as not, the most likely cheaters are the top 20 kids in a class," says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. "They want to get that A instead of a B-plus, which could mean the difference between making honor roll and being class valedictorian."
But the habit is hard to break, and the consequences are long lasting. Experts agree that students who repeatedly plagiarize Internet content lose their ability to think critically and to distinguish legitimate sources from those that are hype or hyperbole. Studies over the past 40 years indicate that those who cheat in high school are more likely to do the same in college, and college cheaters, in turn, are more likely to behave dishonestly on the job. Timothy Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity, maintains that cheating is not a victimless crime. "You don't want to look up from an operating table and know that your surgeon cheated his way through medical school," he says. "Integrity matters."