Josephson Institute of Ethics Releases Study on High School Character and Adult Conduct

Character Study Reveals Predictors of Lying and Cheating

October 29, 2009 — For immediate release
Contact: Rich Jarc, Josephson Institute Executive Director  |  310-846-4800

WASHINGTON, D.C. The Josephson Institute of Ethics today released the findings of the first-ever large-scale study of the relationship between high school attitudes and behavior and later adult conduct. The survey found that current age and attitudes about the need to cheat and actual high school cheating are significant predictors of lying and cheating across a wide range of adult situations.
The report is based on 6,930 respondents in five age groups (17 and under, 18-24, 25-40, 41-50, and over 50) and is released in conjunction with National CHARACTER COUNTS! Week, which focuses attention on the importance teaching core values and developing character in young people. The margin of error varies on each item but ranges between plus/minus 1-2 percent.

Since 1992, the Josephson Institute of Ethics has issued a biennial report on the ethics of American high school students, which has revealed significant erosion of values including high levels of dishonesty (cheating, lying, and theft). The 2008 report showed that during that year 64% cheated on an exam, 42% lied to save money, and 30% stole something from a store. Some dismissed that data on the grounds that kids will be kids and will outgrow such character deficiencies. This new study reveals a close connection between youthful attitudes and behavior and continuing patterns of dishonesty as young people enter the adult world.
“This study confirms unequivocally that character counts now and in the future and that values and habits formed in school persist,” said Michael Josephson, founder and CEO of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. “That’s why more than 90% of survey respondents said they believe schools should be more active in instilling core ethical values like honesty, responsibility, and respect and developing good character in children. Our CHARACTER COUNTS! initiative currently reaches more than 7 million children and their families with specific strategies that build good character based on six universal ethical values (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship) called the Six Pillars of Character.”


Age matters – The most emphatic finding is that younger generations are significantly more likely to engage in dishonest conduct than those in older cohorts:

Attitude matters – Regardless of age, people who believe lying and cheating are a necessary part of success (the report calls them cynics) are more likely to lie and cheat. In fact, t his belief is one of the most significant and reliable predictors of dishonest behavior in the adult world. Cynics are:

High school character matters – Regardless of current age, people who cheated on exams in high school two or more times are considerably more likely to be dishonest later in life. Compared to those who never cheated, hi gh school cheaters are:

About the Josephson Institute of Ethics

The nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonpartisan, nonsectarian 501(c)(3) organization based in Los Angeles , CA , created and administers the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a partnership of more than 900 educational and youth-serving organizations committed to improving the ethical quality of America ’s young people through character development. CHARACTER COUNTS! is the nation’s most widely implemented approach to character development. An extensive library of materials for teachers, parents, coaches, and others interested in character development as well as transcripts of Michael Josephson’s daily radio commentaries are available at

A Study of Values and Behavior Concerning Integrity:
The Impact of Age, Cynicism and High School Character
A Report of the Josephson Institute of Ethics 2009

See below for methodology and validity discussion.


Percentage who believe one has to lie or cheat at least occasionally in order to succeed::

Percentage who said they were willing to lie about their address to get a child into a better school:

Percentage who lied to a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or significant other about something significant in the past year:

Percentage who inflated an expense claim for reimbursement:

Percentage who inflated an insurance claim in past five years:

Percentage who were given too much change and kept the money in past year:

Percentage who made an unauthorized copy of software in past year:

Percentage who made an unauthorized copy of music or video in past year:

Percentage who concealed or distorted information on a significant matter when communicating with their boss in past year:

Percentage who lied to a client or customer about something significant in the past year:

Percentage who misrepresented or omitted a material fact in a resume in the past 5 years:

Percentage who misrepresented or omitted a material fact in a job interview in the past 5 years:

Percentage who used the Internet for personal reasons for at least 15 minutes during work time in the past year:

Percentage who provided a child with a false excuse for missing school:

Percentage who lied about a child’s age to save money:

Percentage who asked a child to lie (e.g., "Tell grandma I’m not home") in the past year:

Percentage who lied in front of their child to get out of a difficult situation in the past year:

Percentage who misrepresented or omitted a fact on a tax return in the past 5 years:

Percentage who were not completely honest in answering all questions on this survey:


Percentage who said they're satisfied with their own ethics and character:

Percentage who said they are more ethical than most people they know:


Percentage who believe kids are more likely to lie, cheat, or steal today than they were 20 years ago:

Percentage who believe schools should be more active in seeking to instill core ethical values like honesty, responsibility, and respect, and in developing good character in children:


The Josephson Institute of Ethics created an online survey instrument to assess adult behavior regarding common issues of integrity and to determine the impact of age, cynical attitudes about honesty, and high school character. One goal was to determine whether there is a meaningful predictive relationship between attitudes and conduct in high school and subsequent adult behavior.

The survey was conducted online in 2009. Almost 7,000 persons filled out the survey, a self-reported assessment instrument. Because of this, it is not a random, stratified sample of the U.S. population. The methodology and analysis were reviewed by Dr. Rick Hesse, D.Sc., Professor of Decision Sciences, Department Chair, Decision Sciences & Marketing, Graziadio School of Business & Management (GSBM), Pepperdine University. Dr. Hesse concluded that:

The large size of the population surveyed and the absence of any corrupting factors in the sampling and collection of the data justifies the conclusion that certain valid conclusions can be drawn from the responses. I examined the sampling process for indications of sampling bias and concluded that the conscientious efforts of the Institute to acquire responses from a broad and diverse population generated a sample permitting meaningful and useful comparisons and conclusions. Examining the data at progressive intervals of 2000 revealed a level of consistency supporting the conclusion that there was no material bias in the sampling.

Because sample sizes varied in certain demographic categories the confidence interval for reported results varies somewhat. Thus, depending on the comparison cited, the confidence intervals range between 95% and 99%. The accuracy of the data is within +/-1.57% for a 99% confidence interval and within +/-1.20% for a 95% confidence interval.

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