Compliance and Soft Science


Childhood Obesity News pointed out some similarities between adults who participate in trials of pharmaceutical products, and young people in weight-loss programs. Although the circumstances are not strictly parallel, it is useful to look at related research for hints about paths to pursue, especially when not much literature on a particular demographic group exists.

Possibly, interesting details can be found in a study of cheating in an academic setting. Warning: the report gets very dark, very quickly. Here are excerpts:

Students who cheat in high school and college are highly likely to fit the profile for subclinical psychopathy — a personality disorder defined by erratic lifestyle, manipulation, callousness and antisocial tendencies, according to research published by the American Psychological Association…. First, they sought to get the grades to which they felt entitled; second, they either didn’t think cheating was wrong or didn’t care.

Apparently, teenagers feel there are two chief justifications for cheating on tests — a sense of entitlement, and a disregard for morality. As a thought experiment, how do those two factors impact the case of a child who takes part in a study, and then knowingly under-reports his or her food intake?

In pragmatic terms, the first rationale is useless, in any kind of diet, mainly because of the laws of nature. It matters not how many servings of chocolate-covered bacon a person feels entitled to eat. If calories cause pounds, no amount of entitled attitude can result in weight loss.

This report inspires contemplation of the many different ways we use the word “cheat” in English. As categories, active non-compliance and passive non-compliance might be more useful, like the old theological distinction between “sins of commission” and “sins of omission.”

Taking an extra cookie is active; neglecting to enter it in the food diary is passive. Ideally, the participant does neither. In regard to cheating on academic tests, the report also said:

Analysis unearthed subgroups of students who felt that cheating was an appropriate strategy for reaching their ambitious goals, who were not afraid of punishment, or who were not morally inhibited.

Again, with overeating, the first condition does not enter the equation. No matter how strongly a person believes that cheating on their designated food program is an appropriate strategy for reaching a weight-loss goal, their conviction is irrelevant. It doesn’t work, that’s all.

As for the second condition — no fear of punishment — if overweight and obese people regard their body size as a punishment, is that healthy or useful? Whether or not society labels it as a punishment, it seems inevitable that obesity will be the unavoidable consequence of cheating with food.

A rebel can get away with a certain amount of misbehavior, and gain short-term satisfaction from sticking it to The Man. But long-term, the pounds will arrive — and they will stay.

Thirdly, when it comes to morality, humans have been arguing for millennia over the difference between right and wrong. Also, science is not supposed to dabble in that realm. So there are built-in difficulties.

Part 1 of the research team’s Self-Report Cheating Scale concerns admissions (confessing to wrongdoing) and tells scientific colleagues:

The 18 items marked with an asterisk are included in self-reported cheating score. They can be summed to create an overall cheating admissions scale. The other items are fillers: They were included to take the focus off cheating to more general misbehavior.

If the object is to conceal from the students that the quiz is actually about their cheating habits, it is humorously transparent. Among the 26 items are eight “filler” questions and 18 cheating questions. The method seems so unsophisticated that it might have come from the pages of the old National Lampoon. There is also something risible in the idea of asking people to candidly reveal the truth about their own cheating.

Because professionals in all the soft sciences deal with humans, these are the challenges they face.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Personality Predicts Cheating More Than Academic Struggles, Study Shows,”, 09/07/10
Source: “Identifying and Profiling Scholastic Cheaters: Their Personality, Cognitive Ability, and Motivation,”, September 2010
Photo credit: TwisterMc on Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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