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Are Britons becoming more dishonest?

25 January 2012

Britons are less honest than they were a decade ago, according to research from the new Essex Centre for the Study of Integrity, based at the University of Essex.

The online survey, which repeated questions asked in the year 2000 in a large-scale study of citizenship, reveals the public are now more tolerant towards a range of misdemeanours such as having an extramarital affair, drink driving or failing to leave a contact after damaging a parked car.

A decade ago, seven out of ten people said an affair could never be justified. But by 2011 that figure had dropped to around half. The proportion who said picking up money found in the street was never justified dropped from almost four out of 10 in 2000 to fewer than two in ten in 2011. Just one in three were prepared to condemn lying in their own interests.

In 2011 Britons were more likely to condemn accepting bribes, falsely claiming benefits or drink driving than they were to condemn lying or exceeding the speed limit.

In the latest survey more than 2,000 adults were asked to take an ‘integrity test,’ in which they were asked whether they thought a range of activities could ever be justified. Around seven out of ten respondents said they would never condone tax-dodging or buying stolen goods, while around half thought falsifying a job application or having an affair could sometimes be justified.

Some of the greatest levels of censure were directed at dropping litter, drink driving and falsely claiming government benefits, with more than eight out of 10 respondents saying these activities could never be justified.

The only transgression of which people had become less tolerant in the past decade was cheating on benefits, with 78 per cent condemning the practice in 2000, but 85 per cent doing so in 2011.

The young were much more likely to condone bad behaviour than older people, the study found. Under-25s scored an average of 47 points on an ‘integrity scale’ against an average of 50 points, while those aged 65 and over scored an average of 54 points. For example, a third of under-25s said lying on a job application was never justified, compared to three quarters of the over-65s.

The researchers said this might mean Britain would continue to grow more dishonest as this young generation aged - but alternatively it might simply tell us that people tended to become more honest as they grew older. Women scored very slightly more highly on the test than men, but social class and occupation did not have a significant effect on levels of honesty,

Professor Paul Whiteley, director of the new Essex Centre for the Study of Integrity and author of the study, said levels of integrity mattered because those who scored highly on the test were also likely to have a strong sense of civic duty. “If social capital is low, and people are suspicious and don’t work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed and entrepreneurial. It really does have a profound effect, “ he said.

This is of course relevant to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ initiative which calls for more volunteering in the community to solve common problems. If integrity continues to decline in the future then it will be very difficult to mobilise volunteers to support the Big Society initiative, Prof Whiteley believes.

The findings will be presented at the launch of the new The Essex Centre for the Study of Integrity (ESCI) which will take place at the Palace of Westminster at 6pm on Wednesday January 25. The event will be hosted by Lord Phillips of Sudbury, Chancellor of the University of Essex, and will be addressed by Lord Currie, the university’s Chair of Council and a panel member of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press and the university’s Chair of Council.

ECSI is the first centre of its kind in a British university, and will research all aspects of integrity in society. It has been set up in response to concerns that probity is under increasing pressure on every front – public, private and personal – and that the implications of this are profound. It will examine influences on honesty and incentives to be honest, as well as why and how people practice – or fail to practice - integrity. It will take in the experiences of individuals, groups and organisations in both private and public spheres. It is anticipated that the ECSI will help us all to understand better how to encourage a culture of integrity and examine the role of politics and policy-making in bringing this about. The centre will also work with businesses to perform ‘integrity audits.’

The integrity test and background information is available at www.essex.ac.uk/integrity/

Ends

For more information or to request an interview with Professor Whiteley, please contact Fran Abrams, Communications Officer, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Essex at fabrams@essex.ac.uk or call 01206 873684.

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