Declining Honesty in Britain

One of the major factors in reducing societal conflict is trust and this is closely connected to societal standards of honesty. Globally, we know that societies where trust has broken down, especially trust between ethnic or religious groups, are much more prone to violent conflict. It was with some concern that I read Dan Ariely’s post on declining honesty in Britain. Given its implications for civil peace in Britain in the long run, especially the fact that honesty has fallen most amongst the young, I thought it worth posting below.

It would be interesting to know if this declining honesty is related to the steady growth of inequality in Britain since 1979. To be honest, you may have to think things are fair? But that is to impose one of my personal lenses on the situation. What do you think?

Apparently, Britons are becoming less honest. At least according to a recent study conducted at the University of Essex, where several thousand respondents filled out an online survey that repeated questions from a study on citizenship and behavior conducted in 2000. According to researcher Paul Whiteley, the purpose of the study was to try to gain an idea of the level of dishonesty in British society, and moreover, what’s considered acceptable and whether that has altered over time.

In the survey, participants were asked to rate various behaviors—such as littering, drunk driving, or having an affair—a score from 1 (always justified) to 4 (never justified). What researchers found was that people’s tolerance of certain dishonest behaviors have changed, and almost entirely for the worse. For instance, in 2000, 70% of respondents said having an affair could never be justified, a number that dropped to around 50% of respondents in 2011. And two out of three people said they could justify lying in their own interest. In fact, there was only one behavior that people condemned more in 2011 than in 2000. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that governments the world over have tightened their belts since 2000, that one behavior was falsely claiming benefits.

With this apparent relaxing of moral standards, one might wonder if this is the case across the board. Researchers observed that while women were slightly more honest than men, the most appreciable differences were found among different age groups. Young people were significantly more tolerant of dishonest behavior than older people—for instance, only around 30% of people under age 25 thought lying on a job application was never justifiable as opposed to 55% of people over 65. Neither income level nor education affected levels of honesty.

The problem is that over time, if no one counteracts the spread of dishonesty, it is likely to continue. Because we generally look to our peers for cues on what kinds of behaviors are acceptable, if lying on job applications seems to be par for the course, it will increase in frequency. So does this mean that England will be governed by degenerates in a few decades? I guess we’ll see.

This is Paul Whiteley who conducted the research. You can see the full report at:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Conflict Statistics, Economic Conflict, Neuro-science of conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Types of conflict and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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