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  • Adolescents cheating and delinquent behaviorfrom a justice-psychological perspective: the role of teacherjustice

    Matthias Donat & Claudia Dalbert &Shanmukh Vasant Kamble

    Received: 11 December 2013 /Revised: 3 March 2014 /Accepted: 11 April 2014 /Published online: 26 April 2014# Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, Lisboa, Portugal and Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht2014

    Abstract The more people believe in a just world (BJW) in which they get what theydeserve, the more they are motivated to preserve a just world by ones just behavior.Consequently, we expected school students with a strong BJW to show less deviantbehavior as cheating or delinquency. The mediating role of teacher justice was alsoexamined. Questionnaire data were obtained from a total of N=382 German and Indianhigh school students. Regression analyses revealed that the stronger students BJWwas, the less cheating and delinquent behavior they reported. Moreover, the more thestudents believed in a just world, the more they evaluated their teachers behaviortoward them personally to be just, and the experience of teacher justice fully mediatedthe relation between BJW and cheating and delinquency, respectively. This pattern ofresults was in line with our hypotheses and consistent across different cultural contexts.It persisted when neuroticism and sex were controlled. The adaptive functions of BJWand implications for future school research are discussed.

    Keywords Belief in a justworld .Youthdelinquency. School cheating . Justicemotive .Teacherjustice

    Eur J Psychol Educ (2014) 29:635651DOI 10.1007/s10212-014-0218-5

    M. Donat (*) : C. DalbertInstitute of Education, Department of Educational Psychology, Martin Luther University ofHalle-Wittenberg, Franckeplatz 1, Haus 6, D-06110 Halle (Saale), Germanye-mail: matthias.donat@paedagogik.uni-halle.deURL:

    C. Dalberte-mail: claudia.dalbert@paedagogik.uni-halle.deURL:

    S. V. KambleDepartment of Psychology, Karnatak University, Dharwad-03, Karnataka State, Indiae-mail:

  • Introduction

    A major gap in the empirical literature on adolescent deviant behavior is the relative lackof attention to justice perspectives. School cheating and delinquency can be interpretedas special forms of adolescents deviant behavior. Such behavior is a break of schoolrules or societal norms and thus can be interpreted as unjust. As a consequence, deviantbehavior should clearly be explainable by individual differences in the need to behavejustly, i.e., the belief in a just world (BJW; Lerner 1980). In this vein, our study aims toexplain school cheating and youth delinquency from a justice motive perspective. Inaddition, we consider justice experiences in school, namely the justice of the teachersbehavior toward the students personally, as an additional explanation for the avoidanceof unjust behavior.

    Deviant behavior in adolescence

    Following Morton (2010), behaviour is perceived as (most) deviant, and thus evaluatedas (most) negatively, when it involves an ingroup member transgressing the core norms ofones group (p. 97). In general, deviant behavior is therefore characterized by deviation froma societal norm, by insensitivity toward the interests of other persons, and is anti-social inthe way it undermines community cohesion, fragments shared values and erodes socialcapital (Squires and Stephen 2005, p. 3). This definition can easily be transferred to school,and adolescence, respectively, where several forms of deviant behavior can be found. In ourstudy, we focus on school cheating and delinquency.

    School cheating One form of deviant behavior in school is cheating, sometimes calledacademic dishonesty (e.g., Arnett Jensen et al. 2002). It can be defined as deceiving,defrauding, fooling or misleading another person and is characterized by a lack oftransparency (Davis et al. 2009). In a broader sense, school cheating defrauds thepublic who believe that academic diplomas or degrees signify a certain level of accom-plishment by the students who possesses them (Davis et al. 2009, p. 3) and that thoseachievements are honestly deserved. In this vein, cheating breaks rules and norms of theschool community and the society in all. Teachers should usually think that theacademic work submitted by a student was a students own work (Davis et al. 2009,p. 2). The typical goal of school cheating is to produce a better outcomea bettergradethan what students might have been capable of achieving on their own. Concernsabout and pressure to get (good) grades seem to be frequently mentioned reasons forcheating (Bushway and Nash 1977). Interestingly, the moral climate of the school(Bushway and Nash 1977) and moral self-concept of students (Williams et al. 2010)also seem to influence the incidence of cheating. As a result of cheating, the teachersevaluations of the students knowledge and abilities become invalid.

    According to Davis et al. (2009), school cheating contains a widespread repertoire of acts ascopying answers from another students paper, using crib sheets on an exam, plagiarizing,letting others copy a homework paper, writing answers on a desk or body parts, obtainingcopies of the test before the exam, and ghostwriting. During the last decades, the forms ofcheating in school have barely changed (cf. Bushway and Nash 1977). Davis et al. (2009)point out that these techniques are still very popular but are also supplemented with a growingnumber of strategies being enabled with the aid of modern media, e.g., mobile phones and theWorld Wide Web.

    636 M. Donat et al.

  • Youth delinquency Delinquency or delinquent behavior can be interpreted as the most extremeform of deviant behavior as it additionally includes the breach of the law of the respectivesociety and, in consequence, is a criminal act. Of course, the definition of a statutory offensecan vary according to the societal norms and historical period (Baier 2008). In most criminalcodes, criminal acts are classified into eight major categories: crimes against persons (e.g.,homicide), crimes against property (e.g., burglary), crimes involving fraud (e.g., forgery),crimes involving health and safety (e.g., driving while intoxicated), crimes involving moralsand decency (e.g., gambling), crimes against peace and order (e.g., riot), crimes againstadministration of justice (e.g., perjury), and offenses against the sovereign in terms of treason(Cassel and Bernstein 2007).

    Youth delinquency is of special interest because the prevalence of criminal acts is highestamong adolescents between about 14 and 21 years (Baier 2008; Bundesministerium desInneren 2011; Lsel and Bliesener 2003; Moffitt 1993). According Moffitt (1993), there is amultitude of risk factors that may cause adolescents delinquency, e.g., maternal drug use, poorparenting, a difficult temperament, and learning difficulties, and that the progressive exposureto those factors can have a cumulative effect on youngsters development. This may result in aweak ability to react in a socially acceptable manner. Subsequently, the adolescents cognitiveand social development as well as schooling and social interactions are impaired. However, themajority of adolescents at least occasionally participate in criminal acts. As Elliott and Ageton(1980) stated: Virtually all youth report some delinquent activity [], but for the vastmajority the offences are neither very frequent nor very serious (p. 107).

    Deviant behavior like cheating and delinquency can be interpreted as unjust. In cheatingbehavior, unwitting teachers are betrayed, and the cheating pupil undeservingly gets anadvantage over other pupils. Delinquent behavior damages, e.g., the property of anotherperson or the person her-/himself, and consequently breaches the norms, rules, and laws ofthe society. Those forms of deviant behavior aim to achieve goals by unjust means and canthus be investigated from the perspective of justice research. In our study, we focus on justworld research.

    Belief in a just world

    According to the just world hypothesis, People want to and have to believe they live in a justworld so that they can go about their daily lives with a sense of trust, hope, and confidence intheir future (Lerner 1980, p. 14). After more than 40 years of just world research, threefunctions of the belief in a just world can be identified (Dalbert 2001). First, the trust functionenables people to trust in others and in the justice of their fate. This trust has adaptiveconsequences: it gives individuals the confidence to invest in long-term goals (e.g., Detteet al. 2004; Otto and Dalbert 2005), to trust others to treat them justly, and to be rewardedjustly. For example, Tomaka and Blascovich (1994) showed that strong compared to weak justworld believers felt less threatened and less distressed when confronted with achievement tasksin the laboratory and that they showed better performance. Second, the assimilation functionhelps individuals confronted with injustice to preserve the BJW by restoring justice eitherpsychologically (e.g., minimizing the injustice) or behaviorally (e.g., compensating the injus-tice). As a consequence, school students with a strong BJW have been found to evaluate theirteachers behavior as more just than students with a weak BJW (e.g., Correia and Dalbert2007; Dalbert and Stoeber 2005; Donat et al. 2012).

    Third, the motive function compels individuals to behave justly in order to maintain a justworld. Thus, the BJW is indicative of a personal contract (Lerner 1980), the terms of which

    Adolescents cheating and delinquent behavior from a justice-psychological perspective 637

  • oblige the individual to behave justly, and can be seen as an indicator of an implicit justicemotive (


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