Lying, Cheating and Stealing: Everybody’s Doing It

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt


The Josephson Institute recently released its 2008 biennial report on youth ethics, based on a survey of 29,760 students in U.S. public and private high schools. The resulting data are dismaying, revealing, enigmatic:

     •  Eighty-two percent of students copied someone else's homework once or more in the past year.      •  Sixty-four percent cheated on a school test once or more.      •  Sixty-five percent lied to a teacher about something significant.      •  Eighty-two percent lied to a parent about something significant.      •  Thirty percent stole from a store once or more in the past year.      •  Forty percent agreed a person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.      •  And, 26 percent owned up to failing to answer all the survey questions honestly!

But here’s the stunner: 93 percent of students are satisfied with their own ethics and character, 98 percent agree it’s important to be a person with good character, and 96 percent agree it’s important that people trust them.

Hmmm, they cheat, they lie, they steal, yet, except for 7 percent, they’re feeling pretty comfortable with themselves; but for 2 percent, they think it’s important to be good; and, but for 4 percent, they want to be trusted.

That’s some disconnect.

[caption id="attachment_1259" align="alignright" width="336" caption="The Corrupt by Salvador Dali 1964"]The Corrupt by Salvador Dali 1964[/caption]

Psychologist Shari Delisle, PhD, said it’s not unusual. “We are all products of deep paradox, although we resist knowing our lives are rooted in paradox. There’s a big disparity between what we believe and what we do. Believing is easy; doing is really hard.”

Apparently it’s quite hard to do what we know is right, and our youth are not alone: They have some very public role models in our government and corporate leadership.

“It’s a relatively low risk, high reward choice,” explained Vicki Fox, of the Josephson Institute. “If you look in the media … you hear about stealing and lying and cheating constantly, and we tend to look away or pardon the people involved … or bail them out. That doesn’t give students a lot of reason to want to change. What we model, they emulate.”

Yes, but there are responsibility, accountability, those nagging “bilities” that define our behavior. I know this from personal experience.

My best friend and I were caught shoplifting in our prepubescence. I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t think about it: We were too busy enjoying the adrenalin high of stealing — until a terrifyingly righteous store manager nabbed us with a purloined Bic, held us in his office and told us what he thought of our despicable behavior while we awaited the even more dreaded parents. After an excruciating hour of self-flagellation, my parents arrived at the store after work and were ushered into the manager’s office, cluttered with products: Mother still delights in recounting my look of abject shame, slumped in the corner atop a case of Kotex. My luckier friend had landed on the stack of Coke.

The manager, my parents and I all knew I had done something wrong: I took something that didn’t belong to me; I harmed someone else. There was no excuse for it other than my own moral failure. I lost what felt like a childhood of privileges, and I sure as hell never did it again.

In contrast, today, we’re eager to make excuses for bad behavior and, in the process, offer absolution with no consequences. We bail out our kids and our leaders without demanding atonement, all amid serial media frenzies.

The institute’s Fox said that parents, rather than supporting a school’s efforts to punish a student, are “much more likely to threaten a lawsuit or ask for a second chance.” She also said that almost every commentator who covered the 2008 report came up with excuses for the unethical behavior: the divorce rate, it’s harder to be a kid now, both parents are working, etcetera.

But that’s caca de toro. Although I’m loath to admit it, a little well-placed punishment can go a long way. Decades after my foray into theft, my honesty was once challenged at work. I wanted to yell, “Hey, buster, I have plenty of failings, but deceit isn’t one of them. I learned my lesson well: I was pilloried on a case of Kotex!” and perhaps that’s the answer.

President George W. Bush has been unable to pronounce one personal failure in his presidency, noting only bad intelligence on Iraq. He said, “I will leave the presidency with my head held high.” Is this because he truly is the likeable incompetent whom director Oliver Stone projected in “W.” or because Bush isn’t any different from today’s paradoxical youth?

As Dr. Delisle said, “Believing is easy; doing is really hard.” Let’s test this. Let’s plop Bush on the case of Kotex and see what happens.

Love, K-B

©2008 Kit-Bacon Gressitt