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Cheating and Trust

by Eli H. Newberger, M.D. (6 December 2003)

(This lesson is based on an excerpt of the book "The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of the Male Character" by Dr. Newberger.)

Chapter 19 in my book "The Men They Will Become" addresses the problem of cheating, especially by boys in the academic setting. This last section of the chapter discusses the relationship between cheating and trust. It follows the section on Who Loses with Cheating?

Cheating affects relationships

Even where cheating goes unnoticed, I believe it deeply affects relationships because the perpetrator knows he is violating someone's trust, and therefore can't be candid about acts that, if known, would deeply affect the relationship. The cheater is always holding something back, and people sensitive to human interaction can often sense it. Adulterers, for example, may have taken great pains to hide their infidelity, but something about their behavior often sends a signal to their partners, who may not know precisely what is wrong, but know something has shifted in the relationship.

Perhaps we are not quite as trusting, on the whole, as some of our ancestors were. Many business deals were once closed with an oral agreement followed by a handshake as a seal of trust. Those days are long gone. Now we like to have everything in writing—an estimate for every project, a warranty for every appliance, a printed insurance policy for every risk. a waiver of liability for every responsibility we undertake. The degree of our trustfulness in many situations can be measured by the length of the written contracts involved. Where trust lags, people entering contracts, or their lawyers in their behalf, want to specify the consequences of every possible thing that could go wrong.

Emergence of a sense of basic trust

Erik Erikson, in his delineation of the eight developmental stages a person passes through from birth to elderly age, saw the emergence of a sense of basic trust as the central issue of an infant's first year of life; this sense, he said. is nothing less than the ontological source of faith and hope in a person. Development of trust is concentrated in the relationship between mother and child. The child has very little capacity to give. so trust is established by the trustworthiness of the mother to give to him, and she can do that, Erikson suggests, only if she is in a wholesome relationship to both her infant and her culture. This is not just a private transaction. The culture. and its degree of nurturing and reliability, is a participant in the process.

If the infant fails to develop trust, he falls into basic mistrust.

One cannot know what happens in a baby, but direct observation as well as overwhelming clinical evidence indicate that early mistrust is accompanied by an experience of 'total' rage, with fantasies of the total domination or even destruction of the sources of pleasure and provision; and that such fantasies and rages live on in the individual and are revived in extreme states and situations.

Even in preschool years, trust comes to have a deep mutuality. It cannot endure unless a boy has an essential trustfulness of others and a matching sense of his own trustworthiness. One cannot survive without the other. No one gets through childhood without some disappointments in the quality or reliability of care received, so no boy is completely trusting; no one completes childhood without disappointing his family or others through some acts of dishonesty or irresponsibility, so no boy is completely trustworthy.

We fear for the welfare of any child who is completely trusting; his gullibility may make him too easily the victim of exploitation. But I fear that gullibility is not as often the plight of the child as is mistrust. Sadly, the landscape is littered with parents, particularly fathers, who are regarded by their sons with mistrust because of too many broken promises, missed appointments, failed expectations.

Nurturing trust

One way of nurturing trust is protecting the reliability and truthfulness of one's word in the sense conveyed by the phrase "keeping your word." When boys begin to experiment with telling little lies, the best approach, I believe, is not to try to stigmatize lying as bad, but to explain, with examples, that lying erodes trust. "What would you feel if I told you every night that your supper is ready, but when you came into the kitchen there was no food ready to eat? Pretty soon you wouldn't believe me. You need to know that I'm telling the truth, even if I'm tempted not to. I need to know that you're telling the truth, even if you're tempted not to."

Another way of instilling trust in a boy is to fulfill his basic material and emotional needs in a dependable way. This can lead to many possible disagreements as to what is "basic." Family meetings, beginning with preschoolers and lasting through teenage years, are almost indispensable opportunities for exploring how needs are being met or allegedly not met. Many children's requests based on their own emergent values that the parent may not share, are dismissed with the statement: "You don't need that." At least, the subject should be aired, reasons given, decisions explained. Parents should also articulate what they feel they need from their children materially (a few household responsibilities, perhaps) and emotionally. If parents don't express the need for emotional giving from their children, their children may not observe these needs on their own.

Boys very much need to learn early in childhood that incidents of lying and cheating are wrong, but that they are subject to repair and redemption. When deterrence is the main motive in dealing with academic cheating, redemption takes a back seat because the school authority wants the student to believe that he continues under a cloak of suspicion and mistrust.

Sense of basic trust

A sense of basic trust may develop between siblings, but it isn't inevitable, given the desire of many children to protect fiercely their relationships with parents and therefore to see siblings as rivals. Boys may find it easier to develop basic trust with siblings when all have become adolescents or adults, and no longer feel as competitive with each other.

The sense of basic trust between mother and infant can, in childhood and later, be elaborated in a variety of relationships of varying moral value. When boys go off to school, opportunities exist both for trust between peers and trust between students and those teachers willing to be mentors. Now a boy can begin to develop trustful relations outside the family. In the course of his school years, a boy begins to see that various persons in his environment are making bids for mutual trust and that it is not easy to fulfill all of them. His parents may assume that the issue of trust is something to be worked out principally at home. His peers may be asserting the primacy of trust among classmates. His teachers will be asking for trustworthiness in his academic work and school behavior.

A boy will sometimes experience these claims as conflicting. Parents can help him to sort out these conflicting bids for trust, showing him that where there is conflict there is a moral problem to be solved; so, for example, a boy might maintain trust with his classmates but not to the extent of participating in academic cheating, because cheating would violate his trustworthiness with the teacher.

Trust not always for good

The existence of trust among peers does not guarantee that the group will pursue entirely admirable purposes. Boyhood and adolescent gangs value trust within the group very highly, and often ritualize its importance. The activities of a gang are usually a mixture of legitimate mutually supportive activities and antisocial activities. The biologically based aggressiveness of males can be elevated in a group of mutually trusting boys. Even on the playground, boys may bond in groups that treat other boys and girls badly. So trust will be invited in the service of a variety of pursuits, some of them laudable and some of them lamentable.

The great leap in trust possible in adolescence or later adulthood is for an individual to become trustworthy individually—even when it is not reciprocated. Trust has to be reciprocal in infancy or the infant develops basic mistrust. In childhood, trust is still basically reciprocal in the service of many ends of varying value. But an individual can decide to strive for general trustworthiness. Such an individual would choose not to cheat in financial matters, taxes, or professional responsibilities because he couldn't do so without breaking trust with someone, maybe someone he doesn't even know.


I believe males get to this highest level of trustworthiness only when they are inspired to it by encountering someone who embodies it. It is a level of character that is much more effectively caught than taught.

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