What Do College Students Really Think About Cheating?

Nobody likes a cheater. Well, almost nobody. 

Of the 15,530 students at the University of Michigan who took the Marriage Pact survey in 2022, 61.2 percent selected a 1 (strongly disagree) on a 7-point scale for the question “Cheating is forgivable.” Nearly 90% selected a 1 or 2. 

So clearly, college students can pretty much agree that cheating = bad. But there’s always a few outliers. 1.6 percent of Michigan students who took the Marriage Pact selected a 7 (strongly agree) for “Cheating is forgivable.”  The same was true for 1.5 percent of Northwestern students and 2.3 percent of UVA students.  

Cheating by School

So it seems there’s a non-trivial number of cheating apologists lurking in the shadows. We don’t intend to dish out moral judgements here (well, mostly). Your stance on cheating obviously depends heavily on the boundaries you draw within your romantic relationships, your commitment and attachment style, and your experiences with former partners. Nonetheless, it’s an undoubtedly spicy question to explore.

That being said, which students are more likely to excuse cheating on a romantic partner? Specifically, what kinds of traits, values, and identities tend to predict a higher acceptance of cheating?

We broke things down by gender first. Across the board, men were more likely than women to say that cheating is forgivable. This gender gap was moderate for heterosexual students, but more pronounced for homosexual and bisexual students. 

Cheating Gender

* Due to the relatively small numbers of nonbinary students at each school, we chose to omit them from our analyses to preserve anonymity. 

When we broke this question down by political affiliation, the only crystal-clear outliers were communist students, who were significantly more tolerant of cheating than their moderate or conservative counterparts.

Cheating Political

This trend might illustrate the ways in which nonconformist attitudes influence both political stances and relationship boundaries (which we’ll revisit shortly). 

You know we had to ask: how does field of study factor into the equation? We ranked every major at each school by their average responses to “Cheating is forgivable” and visualized the top five below. 

Cheating Major

First off: theatre majors make the list at two schools. No comment. Other notable groups of majors among the top five cheating apologists include cognitive and psychological sciences (master gaslighters, obviously), organizational studies, environmental sciences and engineering, english, and political studies. Predictable? Surprising? You tell us. 

Let’s move beyond demographics for a moment. Which personality traits, lifestyles, and values tend to go hand-in-hand with tolerance of cheating? To glean some insights, we searched for links in the data between “Cheating is forgivable” and a slew of other Marriage Pact survey questions. 

First, we found that students who are more accepting of cheating tend to have looser relationship boundaries, lower levels of attachment anxiety, and a lesser need for monogamous commitment (who would’ve guessed?). Specifically, students with higher responses to “Cheating is forgivable”:

  • Are “open to being in a non-monogamous relationship.”

  • Are more likely to believe that it's okay to "enter a relationship, even if you're not 100% ready.”

  • Are less likely to classify flirting as a form of cheating.

  • Believe in a shorter wait time before having sex with a new partner. 

But a person’s views on cheating don’t depend solely on their relationship preferences or behaviors. Students more open to cheating are also thrill-seekers who place a high value on excitement and hedonism. Namely, they tend to:

  • Be accepting of hard drug use. 

  • Be accepting of cigarette use.

  • Place a high value on sex in a relationship (or clearly, outside of a relationship, too).

Finally, students more accepting of cheating also tend to display nonconformist attitudes, high levels of spontaneity, and a strong desire for adventure, as evidenced by their higher responses to the following questions:

  • “Stability is just a synonym for boring.”

  • “I admire people who are unpredictable.”

  • “I would go on a vacation with someone I just met.”

  • “I break rules I don’t agree with.”

As it turns out, the data reveal that communists tend to be rule-breakers who value chaos and excitement, too. Perhaps that explains the trend we saw earlier. 

Lastly, we found one correlation that wasn’t distinctly positive or negative, but nonetheless revealed a fascinating trend. We plotted average responses to “Cheating is forgivable” against students’ self-reported “singleness” scores on a scale from 1 to 7. 

Cheating Singleness

Interestingly, students who identify as either “totally taken” or extremely single had relatively low responses to “Cheating is forgivable”. The higher responses belonged to students in the murky “it’s complicated” territory. 

It’s likely that the hazy boundaries and low commitment, no-strings-attached attitude that define a typical situationship are clear recipes for cheating acceptance. If you’re answering a 3, 4, or 5 for “How single are you?”, either DTR or accept your single status. There’s no shame. 

To conclude, I think most of us can agree that cheating is an excellent way to ruin a fulfilling, committed relationship. If your relationship is either unfulfilling or uncommitted, power to you, I guess.

In all seriousness, we’re all for second chances, compassion, and forgiveness. Just remember to put your heart first, and make sure you know where to draw the line. Life is too short to not receive the treatment you deserve.