"Once a liar, always a liar" is a proverbial parental admonishment.
A new study claims there is truth to the adage: People who cheated on exams in high school are considerably more likely to be dishonest later in life, according to a report to be released today by the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
The study, which surveyed nearly 7,000 people in various age groups nationwide, offers a sobering assessment of today's youth as cynics who are aware that their behavior crosses boundaries but believe it is necessary to succeed.
And the findings suggest that habits formed in childhood persist: Those who cheated in high school are more likely as adults to lie to a customer, inflate an insurance or expense claim, cheat on taxes and lie to their spouses.
"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," said Rich Jarc, executive director of the Los Angeles-based institute. "Just think if five times the number of people in business, politics and banking hold those beliefs. That's alarming."
The institute issues biennial reports on the ethics of American high school students that have charted a steady increase in those admitting to cheating, lying and stealing. The new study is the first to connect teen behavior to dishonest activities in adulthood.
Among the findings: 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 older generation outdid its younger counterparts in one area: 69% of adults 41 to 50 and 58% of those older than 50 reported using the Internet for personal reasons at work, compared with 53% of those 18 to 24.
The report did not speculate about what is driving teen attitudes, but Jarc noted that many of the business people, politicians and athletes that have dominated media coverage in recent years gained notoriety for misdeeds.
Robert A. deMayo, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, suggested that new technology has created a generational shift in the ethics of many activities, such as illegal music downloads and plagiarism.
"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."
In defense of teens, he noted that many expressed positive views about ethnic and gender rights and rights to education that were not necessarily held by 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," he said.
Today's students are also under more social and parental pressure to excel than perhaps any earlier generation, said educators. The same federal mandates and state requirements for testing that tax school systems may affect student behavior, said Jeff Sherrill, associate director of the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals.
"I cannot say for sure if the pressure to test creates pressures to cheat," Sherrill said, "but we know one reaction is a natural instinct to try to figure out how to finish ahead."
He said the Josephson report is an opportunity to spark dialogue on campuses.
Officials in the Downey Unified School District, which adopted a curriculum created by the Josephson Institute, report progress on that front. In four years of promoting such characteristics as fairness, respect and responsibility, suspensions and expulsions have dropped and attendance is up, said Supt. Wendy L. Doty, adding that schools must assist parents in teaching positive character traits.