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Helmut Schmidt, Published November 02 2009

Are we raising kids to be liars?

Today’s young people are more cynical and more likely to lie and cheat to get ahead in life, a new survey asserts.

The survey on high school character and adult conduct was released late last week by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, which developed Character Counts, a program emphasizing ethical behavior used at schools around the nation.

Local experts are divided on the report’s conclusions.

Two North Dakota State University professors say other studies and anecdotal evidence back up the Josephson study, while an ethicist at Moorhead’s Concordia College says the young people he sees daily are working hard to do the right thing.

Among the report’s conclusions:

• Younger people are significantly more likely to engage in dishonest conduct than their elders.

– Teens 17 or younger are five times more likely than those over 50 to believe that lying and cheating are necessary to succeed (51 percent versus 10 percent), and nearly four times as likely to deceive their boss (31 percent versus 8 percent).

– Teens 17 and under are more than three times as likely as those age 50 to keep change mistakenly given to them (49 percent versus 15 percent).

– Young adults, ages 18 to 24, are more than twice as likely as those over age 50 to lie to their spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or partner about something significant (48 percent versus 18 percent).

• Regardless of age, people who believe lying and cheating are necessary to succeed are more likely to lie and cheat. The report asserts those beliefs are significant and reliable predictors of dishonest behavior among adults.

The report claims cynics are:

– Three times more likely to lie to a customer (22 percent versus 7 percent).

– More than twice as likely to conceal or distort information when communicating with their boss (24 percent versus 10 percent).

– Twice as likely to lie to their spouse or significant other about something important (45 percent versus 22 percent), or to keep change given by mistake (32 percent versus 16 percent).

• Regardless of age, people who cheated on exams in high school two or more times are much more likely to be dishonest later in life.

High school cheaters are:

– Three times more likely to lie to a customer (20 percent versus 6 percent).

– Twice as likely to lie to or deceive their boss (20 percent versus 10 percent).

– More likely to lie to a spouse or significant other (35 percent versus 22 percent), or cheat on taxes (18 percent versus 13 percent).

Attitude of entitlement

“This is probably an accurate study. It’s consistent with some of the research going on,” said Brandy A. Randall, an associate professor of human development and family science at NDSU.

While the Internet has boosted plagiarism, and business and government now seem commonplace, there is a long-term societal element, too, she said.

Randall said that since the late 1970s, children have been socialized to believe everything they did was good.

It’s “the ‘You’re Great!’ phenomenon. No matter what they do, they’re told they’re great,” she said.

“It creates an attitude of deservingness and entitlement. It also creates a real fear of failure, because kids don’t have the social and emotional skills to deal with failure,” she said.

“If you can’t handle failing, if you can’t handle not being successful, you’re going to do everything you can to avoid that,” and that leads to taking moral shortcuts, Randall said.

She added that young people also need challenges in the workplace. If teens aren’t learning, they may become more cynical and perhaps lie or steal, she said.

Kevin Thompson, chairman of the criminal justice and political science department at NDSU, says a high divorce rate leaves many children without needed guidance.

“The research on this suggests it makes young people more cynical, selfish and less trusting, and more likely not to depend on adults,” he said.

Immoral behavior is also glorified by programs such as “Survivor,” and “The Amazing Race,” he said.

The winners are the best liars and cheaters, he said.

“I’m afraid that young people have been overly exposed to that, maybe influenced in some way,” Thompson said.

At the same time, some of the conclusions could come from any era, he said.

Lying and cheating to get ahead?

“I don’t know if that’s changed any. I could have probably made that statement 30 years ago,” he said.

Jim Legler, director of the Center for Ethical Leadership at Concordia College in Moorhead, said the survey poses some concerns.

But he’s more upbeat about young people.

“Personally, at Concordia College, I see no evidence that students are acting more unethical or dishonest in the past 10 years since I have been here. Most students are very concerned about making a difference in the world and contributing to a positive ethical culture in organizations when they get into the workforce,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583