Amrisha Vaish / Psychology

As a UVA undergraduate, I was steeped in the University’s Honor System. From my very first day on Grounds, it was clear to me that the Honor System is a source of great pride in the community and serves as the foundation of the community’s morality and integrity. Upon returning to UVA as a Psychology faculty in 2014, I was glad to find the prominence of Honor in our community unchanged. Students and faculty alike continued to value the system and place it at the heart of life at the University.

Since joining the faculty, I have discussed with colleagues and read recent articles about the Honor System, leading me to reflect more deeply on the system – in particular, how students view and function within the system. For instance, a 2016 article in UVA Magazine describes students as being less than willing to report others’ Honor violations, with a majority of surveyed students in 2012 reporting that if they witnessed an Honor offense, they would hesitate before reporting it. The same article also describes the introduction of conscientious retraction and informed retraction. These new mechanisms provide opportunities for students to make amends for breaking the Honor Code and are much milder alternatives to the very serious single sanction. Students’ attitudes and the new mechanisms suggest that students are uncomfortable passing judgments on others or punishing others for their transgressions.

As a developmental psychologist, my research focuses on the development of morality in early childhood. My work shows that from an early age, children care deeply about moral norms, so much so that they protest when they see someone harming someone else, they report the transgressions, and they value those who enforce moral norms. And so I was struck by the idea that undergraduates (and perhaps adults in general) are not keen on intervening and reporting others’ transgressions. Why might we as adults hesitate to do so? When do we (not) judge and punish others for their transgressions? When do we forgive others’ transgressions and when do we hold it against them? Are we more willing to report others’ transgressions if the consequences for the transgressors are not too extreme? And even if we are unwilling to report transgressors, do we nonetheless appreciate it when other observers do so – because we do still value the moral system and want its integrity maintained?

My Dream Idea will address such questions. I will work closely with a small group of students who are interested in the Honor System. We will meet regularly over lunch to ponder issues surrounding students’ views of the Honor System, including the circumstances under which students do (not) feel comfortable reporting others’ violations, how students view other students who do report violations, and how we might improve the system or how well students adhere to it. We will read research, philosophical, historical, and popular articles on morality and honor systems. Through these discussions, we will identify two research questions to study in a systematic way, and we will conduct two research studies from start to finish addressing those questions. My hope is that through this experience, students will, a) think deeply about the Honor System specifically and morality more generally; b) learn about and enjoy the scientific research process; and c) feel a renewed sense of commitment to the University and its moral system.



Bi-weekly lunch meetings with 5 students. 90 (2/month x 9 months x 5 students) x $10 per lunch: $900

Payment for study participants. 200 (100 per experiment x 2 experiments) x $10 per participant: $2,000

TOTAL: $2,900