Study of Values and Behavior Concerning Integrity

Summary of remarks by Michael Josephson at the National Press Club

October 29, 2009

Significance of new survey, causes of moral
deterioration, and what can be done

MAJOR FINDINGS. First-ever large-scale examination of the relationship between high school attitudes and behavior and later adult conduct provides compelling evidence that there is significant deterioration in the values of Americans, especially regarding issues of honesty and integrity.

  • Cynicism (belief that lying and cheating are necessary to succeed) is a significant and reliable predictor of dishonest behavior for teens, young adults, and mature adults.
  • Cynics are much more likely to lie or cheat — and the difference is exponential, not incremental. For example, cynics are two to three times more likely to lie to a customer or boss, inflate an expense or insurance claim, and lie to their spouse.
  • Teens are five times — and young adults (18-24) are three times — more likely than those over 40 to hold the cynical belief that lying and cheating are necessary to success.
  • Younger generations are significantly more likely to engage in all forms of dishonest conduct than those who are older.
  • High school character matters. Regardless of their current age, people who cheated on exams in high school two or more times are considerably more likely to be dishonest later in life.

SIGNIFICANCE OF FINDINGS. The disposition toward lying, cheating, and fraud is particularly evident in teens and young adults (24 and under). Unless conscious parental and educational interventions alter negative dispositions and behavior patterns, the amount of dishonesty and corruption in all our social institutions is likely to increase significantly in the future.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? Four major factors:

  • Parents are either too busy or self-absorbed to be informed and involved with the development of their children’s values and character.
  • Escalating emphasis on performance results in school, sports, and business has generated a survival mentality that is used to justify doing whatever it takes to “win” (e.g., a consequence of “No Child Left Behind” is cheating by schools to create the perception of improved performance).
  • A pervasive entitlement mentality has generated selfish and predatory conduct. Josephson Institute’s 2008 report on youth ethics revealed that 30% stole from a store in the past year; the theft rate was as high in affluent communities as in impoverished ones.
  • Failure of parents, teachers, and employers to impose appropriate consequences on those who violate legal and ethical standards. Bad behavior rarely results in bad consequences.

WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT? It is simply irresponsible to fail to acknowledge and confront the consequences of shriveling values.

  • The good news is that the situation is not hopeless and that we are not helpless.
  • Every one of the major causes of the problems can be dealt with by concerted strategic efforts to make dishonest conduct less desirable, more difficult, and more risky.
  • Every parent, teacher, and manager can create an ethical culture at home, in the school, and at the office by following a simple acronym: TEAM. It stands for teach, enforce, advocate, and model.

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