Kayla and Kellie Bingham are used to being in sync. They’re identical twins, after all, and they figured that explained why they have the same mannerisms, both played midfield in soccer and made the same decision to pursue careers as doctors at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Their similarities never landed them in trouble until they were called into a university administrator’s office in May 2016, about a week after their end-of-year exams. Kayla and Kellie had turned in test papers with what the proctors deemed unusual similarities. On 296 of 307 questions, they had put down the same answers. On 54 of those, they put down the same wrong answers.
In the words of the administrator? “It didn’t look good.”
“She told us that we were being accused of academic dishonesty,” Kayla, 31, told The Washington Post. “We were floored.”
The Binghams were investigated by a university honor council, which ruled that they had collaborated on their exams. They appealed and had the decision overturned. Then they took the university to court.
Their argument each time? That MUSC should have known that identical twins often perform similarly on tests. A psychology professor testified that Kayla and Kellie’s similar scores could be explained by their genetic profiles. In November, a jury sided with the twins, awarding them a total of $1.5 million in damages.
Kayla said the university defamed her and her sister, and that the accusations derailed their dreams of becoming doctors.
“I just broke down,” she said. “It was the worst moment of my life.”
MUSC and attorneys for the university declined to comment to The Post, citing post-trial motions challenging the verdict that have not been decided.
Nancy Segal, the professor who testified in the Binghams’ case, said many people don’t realize how similarly identical twins can behave.
“We’re all brought up to believe, and rightly so, in individual differences in behavior and appearance,” Segal said in an interview. “When people encounter two people who look so much alike and act so much alike, it intrigues them. It’s against the way they believe the world works.”
Segal, who teaches at California State University, Fullerton and runs the university’s Twin Studies Center, nevertheless says research shows identical twins are more alike in IQ scores and specific mental strengths and weaknesses than fraternal twins or people who aren’t related.
In her court testimony, Segal referenced a 1990 study she co-authored with researchers from the University of Minnesota that put over 100 pairs of identical and fraternal twins through 50 hours of medical and psychological assessment. The study found that identical twins, even those raised apart from each other, exhibited a strong correlation in various tests to measure verbal and nonverbal intelligence. Identical twins raised together - as Kayla and Kellie were - exhibited the strongest correlation.
“Identical twins do tend to show similar patterns, similar test-taking behaviors, similar wrong answers, because they process information in the same way,” Segal told The Post.
Tony Vernon, a psychologist teaching and studying behavioral genetics at Mount Royal University in Canada, agreed that the Binghams’ results were not unusual for identical twins. He saw similar trends, he said, when three sets of identical twins took his classes in statistics.
“What would be astonishing to me would have been if one of them had flunked the test and the other had gotten 90 [percent],” Vernon said.
According to court documents, MUSC alleged that after noticing the twins’ similar test scores in an audit of the first portion of the exam, a proctor observed that the two sat next to each other and appeared to be “nodding unusually” and writing notes that looked like attempts to communicate with each other in the margins of their scratch paper. The university sent their test scores to a data forensics company, Caveon, which reported that the chances of two tests that similar being completed independently was “less than a person winning four consecutive Power Ball drawings.”
Kayla said she believes the proctor who noted the twins’ behavior had “created a confirmation bias” after seeing their similar test scores, adding that her and Kellie’s GPAs in college and high school, as well as their SAT and MCAT scores, were all very similar. In testimony, Segal said that Caveon’s analysis should have accounted for the fact that Kayla and Kellie were identical twins.
In November, a jury ruled in favor of the Binghams on claims of defamation and awarded them $750,000 each in damages. Earlier this month, MUSC filed post-trial motions challenging both the ruling and the amount of damages set by the jury.
Kayla and Kellie said they withdrew from MUSC in 2016 at the recommendation of a dean after experiencing hostility from other students following the investigation into their exams. They moved together to Florida, returned to South Carolina after choosing to pivot to law school and now both work as government affairs advisers at the same Columbia, S.C., law firm.
They arrived at all those decisions separately too, Kayla insists. She was a little surprised, she said, since she thought Kellie would find it hard to leave medicine.
“I’m not speaking for her,” Kayla said. “But with that being said, I also know her better than anybody in the world.”