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Cheating, stealing liars

By Sharon Hayes - posted Wednesday, 4 May 2005

Recent research suggests that students are more likely to cheat, steal and lie today than ten years ago. The evidence is that a willingness to cheat has become the norm in spite of ongoing efforts by parents, teachers and coaches. Yet students do not seem to appear remorseful or shamed about their behaviour. Indeed, research suggests that students believe they need to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.

Part of the problem appears to be a lack of adequate social engagement brought on by the current propensity of young people to communicate and to seek information via the internet, through digital television and mobile phones. Communication has become abstracted and removed from relationships, allowing the creation of multiple identities and fictional realities.

The resulting lack of engagement leads to both poor social conscience and an inability to think critically about important issues. There is both research and anecdotal evidence that more young people are leaving school without ever having thought about ethical issues, and consequently most have very little in the way of personal resources to call upon when faced with real life ethical dilemmas.


A recent survey conducted by the Josephson Institute for Ethics revealed that high school students “are more likely to cheat, steal and lie than [high school students] ten years ago”. The Institute surveyed 12,000 high schools throughout the United States, and found there were few differences between public and private, state and “religious” schools.

Josephson et al report that 74 per cent of students admitted to cheating in an exam at least once in the past year (up from 61 per cent in 1992), while the number of students who stole something over the past 12 months rose from 31 per cent to 38 per cent over the same period. The report also found that while students from independent schools were less likely to shoplift (78 per cent versus 72 per cent), they were more likely to cheat on exams (86 per cent versus 81 per cent) and lie to their teachers (86 per cent versus 81 per cent).

President of the Josephson Institute, Dr Michael Josephson, says of the findings:

The evidence is that a willingness to cheat has become the norm and that parents, teachers, coaches and even religious educators have not been able to stem the tide. The scary thing is that so many kids are entering the workforce to become corporate executives, politicians, airplane mechanics and nuclear inspectors with the dispositions of cheaters and thieves.

The survey also found that students were more likely to lie to parents, lie to get a job, and steal from parents. Most students also believed they were ethical by nature. Over three-quarters of the sample claimed “when it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know”.

While these results essentially reflect the attitudes and practices of American high school students, and while no comparable study of Australian students has been conducted, there is plenty of local anecdotal evidence that teachers believe the Institute’s findings would be upheld by a survey of our own students.


Richard Teese, a Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne, for example, recently wrote on the problem of values education in schools claiming, “What Australia needs is a good values education for all children” to address the insidiousness of lying and cheating in schools (The Age, January 22, 2004). University of Sydney lecturer, Anne Bamford, argues that cheating and bullying in 10-16-year-olds is exacerbated by their familiarity and addiction to the Internet.

Bamford calls this new generation of young people the N-Generation, and argues that the use of multiple virtual identities among the group allows them to distance themselves from many of the ethical requirements of the “real” selves.

Educators from several local schools have expressed concern over the lack of cyber-ethics among students, with some students participating in competitive hacking of school systems within locally established cyber-communities. Rodger Smee, director of the exceptional students program at St Peter’s College, Indooroopilly, claims teachers have complained that students cannot see the problem with hacking because it seems like a victimless crime. “They admit they wouldn’t pick the lock of the Principal’s office, yet they feel justified in hacking into the school server.”

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About the Author

Dr Sharon Hayes is a lecturer in the School of Justice Studies at QUT. She is a foundational Fellow of the International Institute for Public Ethics, the Ethics and Justice Society, and the Corruption Prevention Network Queensland. and has been recently appointed to the new Legal Practice Tribunal in Queensland.

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