The Psychology Behind Plagiarism Among College Students And What You Can Do About It

Plagiarism is a topic that is at the forefront of all educators’ minds – regardless of the level at which you are teaching. This isn’t something that goes away once students reach the university level. In fact, it’s suspected that nearly 86 percent of all college students will cheat at some point.

What’s more troublesome is that a vast majority of these students believe that cheating is not only acceptable, but that it’s necessary in order to stay competitive. The facts are startling and may leave you feeling helpless in plagiarism’s devastating wake.

However, knowing the psychology behind why college students cheat – and knowing the best ways to prevent it – can help you stay ahead of this unfortunate trend. Here are the top psychological reasons that drive college students to cheat.

Fear of failure

Fear of failure is not just the root cause behind most incidents of procrastination, but it also affects student motivation. When students aren’t sure that they will be able to meet expectations – particularly when they are enrolled in classes that challenge their natural abilities – they will plagiarize out of a fear of losing their reputation or high grades.

The British Journal of Educational Psychology published a study showing how fear of failure directly influenced the methods that students used to reach their learning goals. As an instructor, the best way you can address this fear is to place classroom emphasis on autonomous learning instead of on mastery. While grades should be an important metric, they should not be the only metric that students use to evaluate their self-worth.


Plagiarism can easily be traced back to its evolutionary roots. It all comes down to the chemicals in your brain. When you expect a reward, your brain is ruled by dopamine. This chemical makes you happy and increases your likelihood of conducting the same behaviors that released the dopamine in the future. A common source of a dopamine release? Receiving a high grade.

Endorphins, on the other hand, are released when you have encountered and successfully overcome a stressful situation. For example, your brain might release endorphins when you have finally completed a stressful assignment.

As a result, both dopamine and endorphins (along with several other chemicals in the brain) interact to create a reward system for cheating and plagiarism of which the student is often not even consciously aware. This can lead to repeated acts of cheating so that the rewards keep on coming.


Students are often so confident in their own abilities to write, research, and cite that they either don’t see anything wrong with plagiarism or make major mistakes because they don’t take the time to double-check their work. A sense of hubris, or an overwhelming sense of self-worth, is caused by a false sense of security, often fostered by students’ prior experiences in the classroom.

Help students break free of these assumptions – without shattering their self-esteem – by introducing them to plagiarism tools that will assist in checking their work and teaching them how to cite sources, like this citation tool here. You don’t need to knock your students off a pedestal, but you can show them that there are tools out there to help them become even better masters of their own learning.

Lack of confidence

Here’s the flip side of the coin. When students feel suffocated by high expectations and demands from their parents, peers, and the public, they may feel a drive to be the best in everything that they do. When they try to match the demands of that pressure, they often realize that they aren’t cut out to succeed at that level.

This lack of confidence can lead to a psychological problem known as imposter syndrome, in which students feel as though they do not belong in their current academic setting. This can lead to plagiarism, both intentional and unintentional, as they try to mask their discomfort and lack of confidence in the classroom.

Providing students with the tools necessary to catch themselves is important in addressing this issue. Unintentional plagiarism is common when students are overwhelmed and feel out of place – they may forget citations, paraphrase incorrectly, or even accidentally self-plagiarize. Using a plagiarism checker can help students address their mistakes and provides a fool-proof way for students to build their own confidence.

While you can’t necessarily undo the psychological underpinnings of plagiarism, it is easy to combat and address them in your collegiate classroom. Follow these tips and use these tools to fight plagiarism for good.

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