The Ethics of American Youth: 2008

Survey of teens reveals entrenched habits of dishonesty — stealing, lying, and cheating rates climb to alarming rates

Josephson Institute's 2008 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth is based on a survey of nearly 30,000 students in high schools across the U.S. The results paint a troubling picture of our future politicians and parents, cops and corporate executives, and journalists and generals.

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More on the 2008 Report Card
Individual questions, results
Results of all questions (pdf, 1200K)
Gender/demographic breakdowns (pdf, 470K)
Press release (pdf, 50K)
Media coverage links

Previous survey reports

STEALING. In bad news for business, more than one in three boys (35 percent) and one-fourth of the girls (26 percent) — a total of 30 percent overall — admitted stealing from a store within the past year.  In 2006 the overall theft rate was 28 percent (32 percent males, 23 percent females).

LYING. More than two of five (42 percent) said that they sometimes lie to save money. Again, the male-female difference was significant: 49 percent of the males, 36 percent of the females. In 2006, 39 percent said they lied to save money (47 percent males, 31 percent females).

CHEATING. Cheating in school continues to be rampant and it’s getting worse. A substantial majority (64 percent) cheated on a test during the past year (38 percent did so two or more times), up from 60 percent and 35 percent, respectively, in 2006. There were no gender differences on the issue of cheating on exams.

Worse than it appears?

As bad as these numbers are, it appears they understate the level of dishonesty exhibited by America’s youth. More than one in four (26 percent) confessed they lied on at least one or two questions on the survey. Experts agree that dishonesty on surveys usually is an attempt to conceal misconduct.

Despite these high levels of dishonesty, the respondents have a high self-image when it comes to ethics. A whopping 93 percent said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character and 77 percent said that when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.

Following a benchmark survey in 1992, Josephson Institute has conducted a national survey of the ethics of American youth every two years. Data is gathered through a national sample of public and private high schools. Surveys conducted in 2008 had 29,760 respondents. For the general questions (over 20,000 responses), the accuracy is well within +/- 0.007 or 0.7%; for breakdowns of 10,000 the accuracy is +/- 0.98%; and even when there are just 1,000 responses, the accuracy is +/- 3.1%. Almost all standard errors of differences are much less than 1% for even small samples. These statistics have been verified by the Department Chair, Decision Sciences & Marketing, Graziadio School of Business & Management, Pepperdine University.

This report focuses on honesty and integrity. Additional reports, to be released in the coming months, will address violence, drug use, and other issues.