Liar, Liar: Kids Believe You've Gotta Cheat To Get Ahead

According to a new study, kids who cheated in high school are more likely to grow up to be dishonest adults. In related news: My generation is fucked.

The report, which will be released today by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, surveyed 7,000 people in various age groups nationwide about their past behavior and their personal ethics. They found that teens who admit to cheating on exams in high school are much more likely to lie to a customer, cheat on taxes, or lie to their spouses. Additional findings, as reported in the L.A. Times include:

Teens 17 and younger are five times more likely than those older than 50 to believe that lying and cheating are necessary to succeed (51% vs. 10%), those in the 17 and younger group are nearly four times as likely to deceive their boss (31% vs. 8%) and three times more likely to keep change mistakenly given to them (49% vs. 15%).

More young adults ages 18 to 24 reported lying to a spouse or partner than did the 41- to 50-year-old members of their parents' generation (48% vs. 22%), more made an unauthorized copy of music or a video (69% vs. 27%) and they were more likely to have misrepresented or omitted a fact in a job interview (14% vs. 4%).

The Josephson Institute of Ethics issues regular surveys on the ethics of teens, and they report seeing a steady increase in the number of kids who admitted to cheating, lying and stealing in the past years. However, this is the first study that has linked teenage dishonesty with adult misdeeds. Robert A. deMayo, a professor of psychology from Pepperdine University, believes that the erosion of teen ethics may be linked to the growth of new technology, which provides a huge amount of feedback that reinforces negative behavior by normalizing it. "The young do that in a widespread fashion and say yes, they know it's wrong; yes, it's stealing, but everybody is doing it. It becomes normalized, it becomes almost irrelevant that it's against the letter of the law," he said.

The question of teen morality feels especially salient this week, after the horrible gang rape of a 15-year-old girl in Richmond. This morning, Anna N. delved into the reasons why something like this could happen, and while the bystander effect may play a part, there was clearly much more going on than simply diffusion of responsibility. As much as I don't want to draw a parallel between this study and the Richmond case, it is difficult to read about teen ethics without immediately going back to this terrifying example of a group of young adults who lacked the basic human decency to report a violent assault.

But here's the thing: Kids - and teens - usually have to learn this behavior somewhere, and while peers do play a huge part, so do parents. Rich Jarc, director of the Josephson Institute, says he's worried about the implication of their recent findings: "When you see that teens are five times more likely than adults to think it's OK to cheat to get ahead, we have a problem. Just think if five times the number of people in business, politics and banking hold those beliefs. That's alarming."

It is alarming, but on the other hand, these teens did not spring fully formed into the world. Perhaps even more importantly, teens have always cheated on tests, lied to people, and even stolen. The study examines is based on self reports; is it possible that more teens are simply admitting to their misdeeds than ever before? Based on purely anecdotal evidence, this seems somewhat likely. I will admit, I was kind of a cheater in high school myself. I cheated on tests, cheated on a boyfriend, and routinely lied to my parents. However, my desire to cheat was vastly overwhelmed by my compulsive honesty. No sooner had I told my parents a lie than I would turn right around and confess, which made their job of reigning me in far easier. Judging from the growing trend of confessional journalism - pioneered by none other than the loathsome Liz Jones - people are becoming more and more likely to put it all out there in some (possibly misguided) desire to unburden their conscience. Maybe we're going to see a generation of liars and cheaters, but maybe we are looking at the next generation of obsessive and somewhat self-destructive truth-tellers.

Fortunately, deMayo points out that there is a silver lining: Teens today are much more tolerant than ever before. He notes that many young adults express more positive views about ethnic and gender rights than previous generations. "We want to denounce young people as immoral, but certain basic values that represent American ideals of freedom and equality seem to be on the rise with young adults." At least we have that.

Seeds Of Adult Dishonesty Sowed In Youth, Study Says [L.A. Times]