The Ethics of American Youth: 2012

INSTALLMENT 1: Honesty and Integrity

For immediate release:
November 20, 2012


Biennial Report Card on American Youth by Josephson Institute of Ethics Finds Evidence That Young People Are Cheating, Lying and Stealing Less

LOS ANGELES, CA (November 20, 2012) — A continual parade of headline-grabbing incidents of dishonest and unethical behavior from political leaders, business executives and prominent athletes suggests that we are in a moral recession. But a new report — the 2012 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth — suggests that a robust recovery is underway.

The survey of 23,000 high school students, which was conducted by the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, reveals that for the first time in a decade students are cheating, lying and stealing less than in previous years. The Institute conducts the national survey every two years.

 2012 Report Card data tables

CHEATING: In 2010, 59 percent of students admitted they had cheated on an exam in the past year; in 2012 that rate dropped to 51 percent. Students who copied an Internet document for a classroom assignment dropped 2 percent from 34 percent in 2010 to 32 percent this year. Other good news:

LYING: Students who said they lied to a teacher in the past year about something significant dropped from 61 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2012. Those who lied to their parents about something significant also dropped from 80 percent to 76 percent. In 2012, 38 percent of the students said they sometimes lie to save money; that is a drop of 3 percent from 2010.

STEALING: In 2010, 27 percent of the students said they had stolen something from a store in the past year. In 2012 that number dropped to 20 percent. In 2010, 17 percent said they stole something from a friend in the past year compared to 14 percent in 2012. The percentage who said they stole something from a parent or other relative in the past year also decreased (from 21 to 18 percent).

“It’s a small ray of sunshine shining through lots of dark clouds,” said Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics and a nationally-noted commentator on behavior. “Changes in children’s behavior of this magnitude suggest a major shift in parenting and school involvement in issues of honesty and character. The number of schools adopting our CHARACTER COUNTS! program, and parents who visit our website, suggests that adults interacting with young people are more concerned with teaching kids that honesty really is important.” Josephson added, “Though there is still far too much cheating, lying and stealing, I think we have turned the corner.”

Josephson’s theory is supported by survey results showing that 93 percent of students said their parents or guardians always want them to do the ethically right thing, no matter the cost. Eighty-five percent said most adults in their life consistently set a good example in terms of ethics and character.

Other important findings:

Young people believe ethics and character are important, and they think highly of their own ethics despite very high rates of dishonesty and other unethical conduct.


  • 99 percent agree that “it is important for me to be a person with good character.”
  • 93 percent say they are satisfied with their own ethics and character.
  • 81 percent believe that when it comes to doing what is right, they are better than most people they know.


Boys are much more likely to harbor negative attitudes and engage in dishonest conduct than girls.

  • Almost one-quarter of the boys (23 percent) admitted stealing from a store in the past year, compared to 17 percent of the girls.
  • Boys were almost twice as likely to steal from a friend as girls (19 percent compared to 10 percent). Boys were 6 percent more likely to steal from a parent or other relative (21 percent versus 15 percent).
  • Nearly half of the boys (45 percent) believe that “a person has to lie and cheat at least occasionally in order to succeed.” Twenty-eight percent of girls surveyed possess this cynical belief.
  • Boys are twice as likely as girls (20 percent versus 10 percent) to believe “it is not cheating if everyone is doing it.”
  • While 95 percent of the girls agree that “being good is more important than being rich,” only 86 percent of the boys have this belief.
  • One in five (19 percent) of the boys disagreed with the statement: “It’s not worth it to cheat because it hurts your character.” One in ten girls did not agree with the statement.

Since 1992, the Josephson Institute of Ethics has issued a biennial report on the ethics of American high school students. It is the largest study of its kind to look at student attitudes and behavior, an important predictor of how they will act as adults. More than 23,000 students across the U.S. participated in the 2012 survey. The survey findings have an error margin of plus or minus less than one percent, as validated by Dr. Rick Hesse, D.Sc., Department Chair, Decision Sciences & Marketing, Pepperdine University.