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What Is Deterrence in Testing? Theory, Types, & Key Components

Posted by Steve Addicott

updated over a week ago

Investigate the theory of deterrence, understand the differences between specific and general strategies, and explore the ways you can incorporate the components of severity, certainty, and celerity into your deterrence program.

What Is Deterrence in Testing? defines deterrence as “the act of discouraging people from engaging in wrongful behavior.” However, I prefer’s definition as it goes a bit further: deterrence is “the act of discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences.” Let’s take a closer look at the pieces of this last definition and how it relates to test security:

1. Deterrence Discourages an Action or Event

For our purposes in test security, the primary actions testing programs seek to discourage are cheating (where one seeks to artificially inflate their test score) and item theft (where one steals items so that others may have their test scores artificially inflated).

While innumerable methods exist to attempt these actions, they fall into twelve “buckets” of test security threats for which deterrence may be implemented. You can find out which bucket your specific testing program fits into in Caveon's free Risk Assessment Tool.

2. Deterrence Instills Doubt

Instilling doubt is a fundamental concept, as so much of the test security effort we extoll focuses on causing test takers to wonder, “Can I really get away with this?” To this extent, video cameras, proctors, authentication measures, and other methods have all been implemented to germinate those concerns in testers who might otherwise be tempted to break the rules.

3. Deterrence Gives Fear of the Consequences

Myriad, time-tested approaches have been implemented to thwart test fraud by fostering a "fear of the consequences." Indeed, this aspect of deterrence has sparked deep consideration by philosophers and criminologists alike for hundreds of years!

Deterrence Theory

This last portion of the definition, "fear of the consequences," falls under the field of deterrence theory. Proponents of deterrence theory believe that people choose to obey or violate the rules (or the law) after calculating the gains and consequences of their actions. This is typically after assigning a suitable punishment for the behavior we want to dissuade. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) may have been the first philosopher to develop this perspective when he posited that the punishment for crime or rule-breaking must be greater than the benefit that comes from committing the action. We’ve been creating suitable punishments ever since!

Types of Deterrence

With the theory of deterrence in mind, two types of deterrence can be leveraged: general and specific.

1. Specific Deterrence

Specific deterrence focuses on a specific perpetrator and is designed to discourage them from committing the same wrongful act in the future by reinforcing the consequences.

An example of specific deterrence is when you get pulled over for speeding and are issued a ticket. The intent is that the punishment of paying a fine may slow down driving behavior in the future.

In testing, we see this type of deterrence when a test-taker has their administration canceled and must wait some period before re-testing. The goal is that missing out may help keep the test taker’s behavior on the straight and narrow in the future.

2. General Deterrence

While specific deterrence is customized for the individual who committed a misdeed, general deterrence is intended to sway a broad audience as a whole (such as a group of students or candidates) from participating in inappropriate behavior. It works by making people think twice about breaking the rules.

Sticking with the driving metaphor, our traffic laws serve as a general deterrent—the threat of a ticket for speeding or not obeying the rules may prevent a large group of drivers from operating their vehicles recklessly. There are numerous examples of general deterrence in testing, as test security sanctions may involve public notification, score invalidations, program expulsion, legal prosecution, etc.

The Three Key Components of Deterrence in Testing

According to references on deterrence theory, effective deterrence involves three key components: severity, certainty, and celerity.

1. Severity

Severity involves making a punishment harsh enough that an audience will be fearful of receiving it. This involves an interesting balancing act. If punishment is too harsh, the audience may “cry foul” and protest; if too lenient, it may not prevent test cheats and pirates from perpetrating their misdeeds.

2. Certainty

Certainty involves ensuring that the punishment takes place whenever a misdeed is committed. In our world of test security, this is a lofty goal to achieve! However, if individuals realize that being caught is probable, many may choose to stick to the rules.

3. Celerity

Celerity is the swiftness of the response or punishment. The closer the punishment is to the misdeed, the greater the likelihood that other offenders will realize that rule-breaking is a mistake.

In all, a testing program's deterrent measures are most effective when punishment is severe (but not inappropriately so), certain, and swift. A test-taker will likely more carefully consider the possible gains against the consequences of fraud and not engage in wrongful actions. 


Deterrence measures in testing discourage cheating and test theft by instilling doubt and giving fear of the consequences. There are specific deterrent measures (including examinee administration cancelation and re-testing waiting periods) and general deterrence measures (including public notification, score invalidations, program expulsion, legal prosecution, etc.) that can be facilitated. Effective deterrent measures must include appropriately severe punishment, certainty that the punishment will take place, and swift action after a misdeed has occurred. 

One final challenge to all of us as we consider how to deter test fraud in our programs—despite best efforts and intentions, it can be difficult to measure the effectiveness of deterrence measures. Since it is only those offenders who are NOT deterred that are actually caught, we should try to develop innovative methods that gauge how well our deterrence efforts do (or do not) work. Share your ideas with the wider testing community—we can all learn from one another.

Steve Addicott

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About Caveon

For more than 18 years, Caveon Test Security has driven the discussion and practice of exam security in the testing industry. Today, as the recognized leader in the field, we have expanded our offerings to encompass innovative solutions and technologies that provide comprehensive protection: Solutions designed to detect, deter, and even prevent test fraud.

Topics from this blog: Test Security Basics Deterrence Measures