Hang your head in shame. A major survey of public attitudes towards dishonesty has revealed a nation dominated by chancers, cheats and petty thieves.
More than two-thirds of people have stolen stationery from work, copied CDs for friends, or kept quiet when undercharged in shops, a study by British criminal lawyers shows. Meanwhile, significant numbers confessed they would make fraudulent insurance claims, deceive people online and plagiarise internet articles for college assignments if the chance arose. Others said they would steal DVDs or use a colleague’s account to shop online.
The lawyers asked more than 15,000 people in England and Wales to give their views on morally dubious scenarios, from picking up coins in the street to setting fire to one’s garage to claim the insurance.
They found stark differences in attitude, with women and older people taking a generally dimmer view of events than males and younger people. Opportunistic theft, especially from large corporations, was common despite broad agreement that it was dishonest.
“It’s almost part of human nature. If we think we can get away with something that’s not causing a huge amount of harm to an identifiable person, we do it,” said Stefan Fafinski, who helped devise the survey carried out at Brunel University.
Details of the “honesty lab” survey will be announced at the British Science Association festival in Guildford this week.
The lawyers set up the survey to investigate whether “ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people” existed. The phrase, a cornerstone of criminal law in Britain, is used in the Ghosh test to help determine whether a defendant has behaved honestly. The survey found that even when it came to clear crimes, such as burning down one’s garage to claim the insurance, some people argued the act was not dishonest or worthy of conviction.
“The Ghosh test assumes there is a standard of reasonable and honest people, but even in extreme cases there are disagreements about what is honest. What we can say for sure is that the test is based on an unattainable standard of honesty in society,” said Fafinski.
Participants watched videos of actors describing scenarios and then decided whether they had behaved dishonestly and whether the offence was serious enough for a conviction. After watching one scenario 66% said it was dishonest to cash a winning lottery ticket they found in the street but 41% said they would do it.
The next phase of research will use mock-up courts to see whether private views change when people join a jury and are required to discuss their opinions.