Looming Integrity Crisis

July 15, 2012 BY danariely

Apparently, Britons are becoming less honest. At least according to a study conducted at the University of Essex, where several thousand respondents filled out an online survey that repeated questions from a study on citizenship and behavior conducted ten years earlier. According to researcher Paul Whiteley, the purpose of the study was to try to gain an idea of the level of dishonesty in British society, and moreover, what’s considered acceptable and whether that has altered over time.

In the survey, participants were asked to rate various behaviors—such as littering, drunk driving, or having an affair—on a scale from 1 (always justified) to 4 (never justified). What researchers found was that people’s tolerance of certain dishonest behaviors have changed, and almost entirely for the worse. For instance, in 2000, 70% of respondents said having an affair could never be justified, a number that dropped to around 50% of respondents in 2011. And two out of three people said they could justify lying in their own interest. In fact, there was only one behavior that people condemned more in 2011 than in 2000. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that governments the world over have tightened their belts since 2000, that one behavior was falsely claiming benefits.

With this apparent relaxing of moral standards, one might wonder if this is the case across the board. Researchers observed that while women were slightly more honest than men, the most appreciable differences were found among different age groups. Young people were significantly more tolerant of dishonest behavior than older people—for instance, only around 30% of people under age 25 thought lying on a job application was never justifiable as opposed to 55% of people over 65. Neither income level nor education affected levels of honesty.

This is bad news, but the worst part is that over time, if no one counteracts the spread of dishonesty, it is likely to continue. Because we generally look to our peers for cues on what kinds of behaviors are acceptable, if lying on job applications seems to be par for the course, it will increase in frequency. So does this mean that England will be governed by degenerates in a few decades? I guess we’ll see.