Survey Finds Young People More Likely To Lie, Cheat, Steal

By Debra Viadero — November 25, 1992 3 min read

An “unacceptably high’’ number of 15- to 30-year-olds are willing to lie, cheat, and steal, a new survey involving nearly 9,000 teenagers and adults nationwide suggests.

“Young people didn’t invent lying or stealing or cheating,’' said Ralph Wexler, the executive vice president of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, which conducted the survey.

“But they are, in effect, perfecting [them],’' he said.

The California-based institute drew its conclusions from a survey of 3,243 high school students, 3,630 college students, and 2,092 other people--most of them over age 30--who were not in school.

The survey found that 33 percent of the high school students questioned and 16 percent of the college students said they had stolen merchandise from a store within the past year.

About one-third of the students in each group said they were willing to lie on a resume, a job application, or during a job interview to get a job they want. And 16 percent of the high school students said they had already done so at least once.

Such unethical behaviors also apparently extend to school; 61 percent of the high school students and 32 percent of college students admitted having cheated on an examination once in the past year.

In addition, the survey found, 83 percent of the precollegiate students and 61 percent of the college students said they had lied to their parents over the past year.

A Larger Problem

In comparison, the researchers said, dishonesty and other unethical behaviors were less prevalent among those over age 30 who were surveyed. More precise figures showing that correlation, as well as some of the gender differences the researchers found, will be part of a second institute report due out later this year.

“Clearly, part of this is the maturation process,’' Mr. Wexler said. “But part of it has to do with a real change in society’s values.’'

He noted, for example, that other studies on cheating in school, conducted decennially over the last 30 years, showed that the practice has been increasing.

Moreover, he said, the growth in such problems as crime and violence is a symptom of a larger moral crisis that pervades all of society. Nearly three-quarters of the 15- to 30-year-olds sampled, for example, said they believed that “most people will cheat or lie when it is necessary to get what they want.’'

Young people’s “misbehavior is more often the product of survival strategies and coping mechanisms than moral deficiency,’' the report concludes.

On a more encouraging note, however, the survey found that more than three-quarters of the 15- to 30-year-olds said their parents were their most respected ethical role models.

“It’s not critical that we have the [Michael] Milkens or [Charles] Keatings of the world setting bad examples,’' Mr. Wexler said, referring to the financiers whose illegal activities were widely reported in recent years. “It’s the examples parents set.’'

Mr. Wexler said the survey, the institute’s first, will be conducted hereafter every two years.

The organization, founded in the mid-1980’s, attracted some national attention earlier this year when it gathered together national leaders representing schools, teachers’ unions, family-support organizations, religious groups, youth-service groups, and character-education experts to agree on the kinds of core values that should be transmitted to American youths.

The resulting document, known as the Aspen Declaration, identifies six such values or groups of values: respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice and fairness, and civic virtue and citizenship. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1992.)

Mr. Wexler said the document has since been formally adopted by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Copies of the new study, “Ethical Values, Attitudes, and Behaviors in American Schools--1992,’' can be obtained for $15 each, plus shipping and sales tax, from the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institue of Ethics, 310 Washington Blvd., Suite 104, Marina del Rey, Calif. 90292; (310) 306-1868.

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as Survey Finds Young People More Likely To Lie, Cheat, Steal