Study of Values and Behavior Concerning Integrity

Transcript of remarks by Michael Josephson at the National Press Club

October 29, 2009

New Study: Escalating Dishonesty: Causes and Solutions

My name is Michael Josephson and I am president of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to studying and teaching ethical behavior.

Since 1992,the Institute has issued a biennial report on the ethics of American high school students revealing significant erosion of values including high levels of dishonesty.

I’m here today to present the findings of a new kind of study, the first-ever large-scale examination of the relationship between high school attitudes and behavior and later adult conduct.

We believe our new findings are worthy of the nation’s attention because they provide compelling evidence that there is significant deterioration in the values of Americans, especially regarding issues of honesty and integrity.
I want to avoid a tone of excessive “the sky is falling” alarmism, but the study does show that the disposition toward lying, cheating, and fraud is particularly evident in teens and young adults (24 and under) and it seems reasonable to conclude that 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.

You have in your packet a comprehensive summary of the data in the form of a press release along with substantial detail on all the key items that form the basis of our conclusions.

You will note that for each of the survey items we report results in terms of five factors: age, gender, and whether the respondent cheated on exams in high school, believes a person has to lie or cheat at least sometimes in order to succeed, and whether they view religion to be important in their lives. In addition, on many items, we also report how people from various occupations answered the questions.

The survey of nearly 8,000 people has been validated to have a margin of error of less than plus or minus 2%.
We hope you will look at all the materials carefully. We think you will find many interesting and important facts that you may want to report on or further investigate. Resorting to the language of my professor days: this as a veritable cornucopia of information.

As tempting as it is for me to delve into the details, I will instead simply highlight some key indicators so I can spend the bulk of my time speaking to the significance of the findings, the possible causes of the moral deterioration, and what we can do to reverse the negative trends.


FIRST: Cynicism (the belief that lying and cheating are necessary to succeed) is one of the most significant and reliable predictors of dishonest behavior for teens, young adults, and mature adults.

Why should we care? Because cynics are much more likely lie or cheat on every single item than those who are not cynical. And the difference is not incremental, it is exponential. Regardless of their age, cynics were two to three times more likely to lie to a customer or boss, inflate an expense or insurance claim, and lie to a spouse or significant other about something significant, and so on.

This is bad enough but things will get worse since the disease of cynicism has infected our youth to a distressing degree.

For example, 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. While only about 10% of the respondents over 40 expressed deep cynicism about the viability of honesty, 38% of those 18-24, and 51% of those 17 and under, are in or will soon enter the work world with the belief that lying and cheating are necessary.

SECOND: Younger generations are significantly more likely to engage in all forms of dishonest conduct than those who are older. On every question, the differential in the number of respondents who have been or are willing to be dishonest was directly and significantly related to age. Each age group was substantially more likely to lie or cheat than the group above them.

For example, teens 17 or under are nearly four times as likely to deceive their boss (31% vs. 8%), more than three times as likely to keep change mistakenly given to them (49% vs. 15%), and more than three times as likely to believe it’s OK to lie to get a child into a better school (38% vs. 11%).

Young adults (18-24) are better but not by much. They are more than three times more likely to have inflated an insurance claim than those over 40 (7% vs. 2%) and more than twice as likely to lie to their spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner about something significant (48% vs. 18%).

It is, of course, possible that some of the differences are the result of maturation and changing values as one gets older and some may even be due to unrealistically favorable assessments by older groups, but it is highly unlikely that these factors negate the emphatic evidence that the commitment to ethical values is deteriorating in a meaningful and troublesome degree.

THIRD: The study also demonstrates that 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 on all major measures.


Wherever one looks there is ample evidence of the huge harm caused by dishonest and irresponsible behavior resulting from the deterioration of values and character.

Who could have believed that the unprecedented costs of lying and deception imposed on our economy by the frauds in Enron, WorldCom and HealthSouth would be dwarfed by the unimaginably momentous moral failures of our largest and most prestigious financial institutions and individual thieves like Bernie Madoff?

As Lily Tomlin said, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” And so, the disease of cynicism — both a result of and a major cause of unethical conduct — grows in virulence and pervasiveness.

But if there is a hole in our moral ozone now, it will surely get bigger as increasing numbers of men and women disposed to lying and cheating enter the work force or get promoted to positions of increased authority.
In candor, I must admit to you it is not merely fear of the broad social consequences that disturbs me. I have five unmarried children and I am deeply concerned about the quality of the people they will date and marry. Can any of you comfortably contemplate a fundamentally dishonest or irresponsible spouse of your children or the parent of your grandchildren?


While there are no simple or certain explanations for the cause of the continuing erosion of ethical values, we think there are four major factors:

  1. Many of today’s parents are less effective than their predecessors. Some are too busy or too self-absorbed to be informed and involved with the development of their children’s values and character. Others are simply overwhelmed by the number and complexity of outside forces that contribute to the degradation of their children’s ethical values, including the inability to understand or control access to every manner of negativity on the Internet, video games, and modern music.
  2. A continually 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.” We’ve seen what high paid executives have been willing to do to earn high bonuses and nearly two-thirds of students admit they cheated on an exam in the past year. One of the unintended consequences of the “No Child Left Behind” legislation has been cheating by the schools themselves to create the perception of performance.
  3. A pervasive entitlement mentality has generated selfish and predatory conduct unencumbered by moral restraints. The Institute’s 2008 survey of nearly 30,000 students revealed that nearly one third stole from a store in the past year, and the theft rate was as high in affluent communities as in impoverished ones.
  4. Finally, values are eroded by the failure of parents, teachers, and employers to impose appropriate consequences on those who violate legal and ethical standards. What we allow we encourage and whether the cause is fear of litigation, distaste for confrontation, or thoroughgoing permissiveness, bad behavior rarely results in bad consequences. In fact, it’s often rewarded.


Let’s start with this premise: it is simply irresponsible to fail to acknowledge and confront the consequences of shriveling values. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

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.

As this is what the Institute does, I can talk about solution strategies all day, but now I think it is best to invite your questions.

Josephson Institute home  |  top of page