YOU THINK you're fairly good at doing the right thing? At least,
that's what 1241 of our readers thought before taking our online
survey on honesty Afterwards some weren't so sure.
As a rule, we're quick to pillory politicians, business leaders
and other public figures who stray from the highest principles. But
as Reader's Digest found out, we're way more lenient when it comes
to enforcing our own ethics, and we have developed pretty creative
rationales for our behaviour.
Virtually everyone who took the survey fessed up to being
dishonest at some time in their lives. Only six saints (about 0.5
per cent) claimed they've never committed any of the 27 acts on
our list. And one sinner copped to having done it all. On average,
respondents said "yes" to nine questions. (To see how you
stack up, try the survey.)
Keeping the Peace
Most people say they try hard to be straightforward with those
close to them. "If you can't be honest with friends and family,
you don't deserve to have any," notes one respondent. When
people do stretch the truth with loved ones, it's often to protect
feelings and the relationship. For example, faced with a dicey
question such as "Does this outfit look good?" 65 per
cent admitted to fudging. Explains one woman, 'What does not appeal
to me might appeal to others."
Keeping the peace is also paramount to the 43 per cent of women
and 30 per cent of men who admitted deceiving their partner about
the price of a recent purchase. Says one woman, "I just tell
him how much I've saved." Another: "My husband doesn't
need to know all the nitty gritty - as long as we are solvent and
there is money in the bank." Or this logic: "Value is
different to different people."
The same reasoning works for the 23 per cent who bent the truth
about another relationship, past or present. "Friends and
family don't need to know everything," says one.
Comments another: "I have on a few occasions had more than just
a casual relationship with some of our friends. To tell my wife this
might do more harm than good, so..."
Many pointed to the difference between "lying to save a
person's feelings and lying to hurt them." More than a fifth of
our poll group say they had discovered a friend's partner was
cheating on their friend and, faced with this uncomfortable news
decided to do nothing. In many instances, this was not without some
angst. "To tell or not to tell," says one. "It's a
case of damned if you do and damned if you don't."
But if we reason it's better to look the other way, note this: 57
per cent of us have sneaked a look at someone's private possessions
when they weren't around. "I'm a little sister," writes
one respondent. "That's what I'm supposed to do." In fact,
people of all ages found ways to justify the Big Snoop: "It
encourages my children to keep their own areas tidy because then I
have no reason to be in their space," says a parent. Explains a
once-troubled wife, "I suspected my first husband was dating
another woman. I found theatre tickets and romantic cards in his
Bilking the Boss Man
At work, people seem to have the hardest time being dishonest
when it will hurt another person - only 8 per cent of respondents
have ever passed off someone else's work or achievements as their
own. But when we think we're cheating only a faceless corporation,
scruples can nosedive. Twenty two per cent had been
"creative" with their job application or resume'. But
several said they owned up to embellishing facts once they got the
Over 60 per cent have taken a sick day when they were feeling
just fine. Some swore it was only to care for an ill child or loved
one. But many others found playing hooky was perfectly defensible.
"My hangover would have erased any sensible work," said
one. Some even blamed the company: "My boss's attitude wasn't
always that great. I would almost talk myself into feeling sick
before I called in."
Then there's the question of pocketed office supplies. Those of
us who've pilfered pens, Post-Its and paperclips outnumber the
honest by two to one. Some said it's not so much stealing as a way
of getting even: "He made me work Saturdays without pay. I
thought it was the least he could do to repay me my time."
When we hit the stores, we seem particularly determined to get a
deal. Nearly two-thirds admitted to being undercharged or receiving
too much change without mentioning it. Says one respondent,
"Big stores overcharge regularly, so occasionally I don't tell
them when they undercharge me. Another: "I did once and never
again. I had to unpack all my bags. It is more hassle than it is
Of course, getting something for free is even more tempting.
Seventy per cent of those we asked have used pirated music or
software, many without a second thought. "Software companies
need to realise they charge too much for often faulty and buggy
products," says one disgruntled user And then there was this
line: "My family and I copy each others' CDs. I could just
go over to their place and listen to theirs. Our
piracy is merely a convenience.
One reader admitted to accidentally packing a holiday unit towel
in her luggage but then making no effort to send it back:
"Figured it was fair exchange for the stuff we accidentally
leave behind." But for some, a little dishonesty buys a heavy
conscience. "Many years ago I souvenired a teaspoon from an
Australian navy ship," says one. And another: "Over 25
years ago I went into a movie without paying. I can tell you the
name of the movie. Superman."
In fact, more than one in four had sneaked into an event without
a ticket. One mother detailed "passing off" her children
as younger than they really were to avoid paying adult rates
-"plenty of families are guilty of this." And 40 per cent
owned up to using public transport without paying the correct fare.
In one case it was to spend time with the bus driver - her husband -
who worked difficult shifts.
Only 17 per cent admitted to fudging a tax return. Still, some
souls see their assessment as a personal battleground. "It's
not like the government has exactly used the money wisely,"
says one. They increase taxes then seem to increase the amount of
stupid ways to spend it."
Speeding, on the other hand, feels low-risk. Sixty-one per cent
of us have stepped on the pedal or run a red light. Typical:
"My thought process is 'if I'm not going to get caught, I'll do
Almost one in five confessed to bringing prohibited items through
customs or understating the value of new purchases to avoid paying
duty. "Honestly, have you ever been overseas and not spent more
than $400 on presents, souvenirs, etc?" says one.
All these answers may paint a less-than-flattering picture of our
ethics, but there are positive signs. Many who admitted to lying or
cheating said that they've since changed their ways. "Mistakes
were made when I was younger and when I didn't fully understand
consequences of my actions," one respondent says. "I now
The survey opened some people's eyes to their behaviour Says one,
"I was going to comment that I couldn't cross the basic
"no, no's" i.e. cheating, stealing, plagiarism, etc. -
until I checked my answers and saw that my ideals were somewhat
Battle of the Sexes
So who's more honest, men or women? It looks like both sexes tend
to be equally culpable, though our survey suggests that each is
devilish in different ways.
Men's dishonesty surfaces more around impersonal objects. They
take office supplies (63% of men vs. 60% women), fudge tax returns
(23% vs. 15%) and snap up "hot" bar-gains (12% vs. 7%)
more often than women.
"Men are more pro-active and competitive," says
Melbourne psychologist Dr Helen McGrath. They initiate dishonest
acts, while women tend to wait for an opportunity to present itself,
and then take advantage.
"Women focus on empathy and seek to avoid conflict,"
McGrath adds. "The more ambiguous a situation, such as taking a
'mental health day,' the more likely women are to do this."
Yep, 65% of women vs. 52% of men admitted to taking
sickies. Those who fibbed about the cost of a recent purchase? 43%
of women and 30% of men. And the I-can't-possibly-tell-you-what
I-really-think-about-your-new-look brigade? That was 72% of all
women and 52% of men.