There is substantial literature reporting the results of research into many aspects of college students' cheating behavior. Some of that literature looks specifically at how a student's choice of academic major is related to his or her cheating behavior. A review of some of that literature provides no theory and little direct empirical evidence to support the conclusion that students majoring in economics cheat at a rate different from other students. Also the literature to date does not consider factors which may outweigh those frequently addressed in the literature. Including those variables may add considerably to our understanding of cheating in college.
Most college students cheat; at least they say they do. Bowers (1964) found about three-fourths of college students in his very large sample self reported having cheated in one way or another at least once. Thirty years later, McCabe and Bowers (1994) found students were still reporting themselves to be cheating at about that same rate. McCabe, Trevino, and Butterfield (2001) continued to find much that same rate of cheating, though the preferred modes of cheating may have changed some since Bowers' 1964 study.
The present concern is with students who choose the economics major and whether the probability they will cheat is different from that of other students. If economics majors are more prone to cheat, that implies either studying economics actually teaches students to cheat or antecedent conditions that predispose students to choose economics also predispose them to cheat more.
The conventional wisdom regarding cheating by economics and business students seems to be that they are going to learn (or had already learned) to be strict maximizers of a utility function whose major component is monetary return. Furthermore, the story seems to be, in so doing they are largely unconstrained by moral or ethical considerations. This suggests students of economics and business have their moral compasses reset (or set!) so as to deem morally acceptable a wider range of behaviors than do other people. At least anecdotally, the question is generally phrased in the prejudicial one-tailed form: Do economics majors cheat more than students who choose other majors? However, there is neither theoretical nor solid empirical evidence to support the conclusion that they do cheat more. In the absence of such evidence, there is no reason to believe economics students will be any more (or less) likely to cheat than will other students. Hence, the conventional wisdom may be conventional but not wise.
Concerning cheating by economics majors, much of the work done to date condemns them through guilt by association with those highly suspect academic reprobates, business majors. In those studies considering academic major as one of the possible determinants of cheating, beginning with Bowers (1994), economics majors and business majors are usually tarred with the same brush. Bowers' choice to combine business and economics major apparently influenced many later researchers to do the same.
For those who teach economics it is important to look at economics majors alone in order to know whether they are more likely to cheat than are other students. Either students who choose economics are already more prone to cheat or we are somehow teaching students to cheat, however unintendedly, once they enter the major. Regardless of which is the case, we who teach economics are doing something wrong. We are either accepting into our major students who are systematically more likely to cheat or we are teaching them to cheat once they become economics majors.
It might be worth investigating the source of the general perception that economics and business majors can be expected to be less honest than average. That investigation will have to wait for another day, however.
Mark Twain once said, "Supposing is good, but finding out is better. …