Obsession with dollar buys a country of cheats

Author contends that people excuse too much of their bad behavior

Ideas: Dishonesty

March 21, 2004|By John Jurgensen | John Jurgensen,HARTFORD COURANT

We, from the upper echelons of privilege - Enron execs, Martha Stewart, et al. - to the wide ranks of the working class, have become a nation of cheaters.

So says David Callahan, author of the new book The Cheating Culture (Harcourt, $26). The tax evader. The workplace pilferer. The cautious embezzler. The resume fabricator. The digital file swapper. These are some of the scammers among us, says Callahan, and they're everywhere.

"There are big questions as to whether this stuff is more common or whether it's more often caught these days," Callahan says of his inquiry. "I came to the conclusion, based on the available evidence, that there is more cheating in certain key areas today than there was in the '50s, '60s and '70s, which was my main point of reference."

By cheating, Callahan writes, he means "breaking the rules to get ahead academically, professionally, or financially. Some of this cheating involves violating the law; some does not. Either way, most of it is by people who, on the whole, view themselves as upstanding members of society."

The crisis has been incremental, Callahan says, the result of a society obsessed with financial success and the opulent fantasy that for many has become the American Dream. As the stakes of success rise, the reasoning goes, so do the temptations to cheat.

As an example, he begins The Cheating Culture with an episode of dishonesty during a national tragedy. After 9/11, when chaos gripped Lower Manhattan, some members of a New York credit union discovered that, because of a financial computer error, they could withdraw unlimited amounts from cash machines. Over a period of about two months, as many as 4,000 members overdrew their accounts, some by as much as $10,000. Some of the money was returned, but after $15 million remained missing, the credit union called in the authorities to make arrests.

Levels of transgression

If TV shows like Survivor or The Apprentice are any indicator, then backstabbing is standard procedure in reality. But cheating, by nature, is hard to quantify. Few statistical studies have measured its prevalence over time - not that many would admit to it anyway. Academic dishonesty, however, is one trend that has been closely scrutinized.

For example, in a 2002 survey of 4,500 high school students, Rutgers University professor Donald McCabe found that 75 percent engage in serious cheating. More than half the students had plagiarized work from the Internet; many considered some sort of cheating to be a prerequisite to succeed in high-pressure academics.

That's just one of the rationalizations people use to rewrite their personal codes of conduct. Question the music fan who downloads thousands of songs without paying for them and he or she is likely to say, "That's what the record companies get for swindling artists and overcharging me for CDs."

But for Lou Marcoux, security manager for cable TV provider Cox Communications, that kind of justification doesn't hold up. "Stealing is stealing," he says.

The cable TV industry says that the 10 percent of American homes that steal services are bilking the providers out of $6.6 billion a year. Like most morally questionable scenarios, cable theft comes with its own levels of transgression.

For example, if you move into an apartment, discover free ESPN on tap and neglect to get legitimate with the company, then you're guilty of "passive theft," and not likely to be prosecuted. But purchase an unsanctioned cable box off the Internet, and you could end up in court.

In such modern transgressions, technology is the accomplice, distancing the offenders from their victims and diluting the guilt creeping into their conscience.

Tracking the lies

But technology that aids cheaters doesn't necessarily spawn cheaters, says Michael Shermer, author of The Science of Good and Evil (Times Books, $26), a new book that examines the evolution of human morality. To be dishonest is to be human, Shermer says; only the social context of deceit has changed with the times.

Surveys have found that far fewer people trust others inherently today than they did in decades past. But could that mistrust simply be the result of constant exposure to the bad news about their fellow humans?

"Most people most of the time in most circumstances are good and do the right thing for themselves and for others," Shermer writes. But these good deeds rarely make the news.

Even if cheating is an epidemic today, as Callahan contends, it also seems programmed, to some extent, into our everyday lives.

Consider the recent research on lying by Cornell University professor Jeffrey Hancock. In a new study he will formally release at a conference in Vienna next month, Hancock writes, "Social psychology has demonstrated that lying is an important, and frequent, part of everyday social interactions."

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