Headlines from the past few months suggest that Americans wince when they think their heroes are lying to them.
News reports plead for honesty: Did the Bush administration lie about an Iraqi weapons program? Did John Kerry lie about throwing away his Vietnam War metals? Did Pentagon brass lie about orders given to torture Iraqi prisoners?
Though the public expects truth and bristles when fed lies, wider trends indicate those same outraged Americans are increasingly telling lies of their own to get ahead in school, business, and relationships - and apparently feel OK about it. For example:
• 74 percent of high school students, in a 2002 survey of 12,000 respondents, said they had cheated on an exam at least once in the past year, according to the Josephson Institute of Ethics. In 1992, 61 percent of students reported having cheated. The latest craze is to use cellular phones to photograph exams and show friends in the following class.
• After doing 3.8 million background checks, Automatic Data Processing Inc. announced in April that 52 percent of job applicants had lied on their résumés.
• The list of corporate executives accused of lying to defraud investors now includes those of Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, and Parmalat.
In the high-pressure, high-stakes environment of 21st- century America, lying has for many apparently become a way of life, even among those whose faith demands truth-telling. People may know it's wrong to lie in theory, researchers say, but in practice they feel the success they want will be out of reach if they admit their flaws and sins along the way.
"They think, 'If I'm playing by rules that no one else plays by, then I'm disadvantaging myself in a way that's apt to play out over a lifetime,' " says David Callahan, author of "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead." "When various pressures come together, it's enough to push aside those other strictures people follow with regard to honesty."
In today's religious smorgasbord, where more than 80 percent of Americans pray regularly, most traditions still regard honesty as a core virtue. From the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments, which prohibit the bearing of false witness, to the Zoroastrian belief that lying destroys holy order, the faiths that guide Americans almost universally insist on truth-telling as a necessity for respectable living.
This professed code, however, seems to be holding little sway against what some call "pressures" and others call "temptations." Explanations for today's lying crisis vary according to the implications.
For instance, those who help clerical job seekers find work say they often hear clients speak of marketplace pressures to exaggerate their skills. Both Neil Wilson and Pat Peterson say their Newburyport, Mass., clients sometimes feel "forced" to falsify their résumés, and the frequency of such deception has increased in the current economic drought. At Priority Personnel Inc., Ms. Peterson says, 25 percent of those who claim a particular level of competence turn out to be lying when she tests them on a computer.
Those with limited skills "feel they're forced to be better than they really are to get a job," Mr. Wilson says. "Desperation does nasty things to people. It makes them go beyond their normal threshold."
In Callahan's analysis, it's not just the unskilled who are buckling under mounting pressures to lie. Today's "winner take all" incentive system, he says, pays barely a living wage to workers in journalism, the arts, and minor league professional athletics, for instance, while top achievers make millions. The result: Some figure, why not take a chance if a little plagiarism or steroid use can make me rich?
"It's now more lucrative to lie," says Diane Swanson, professor of professional ethics at Kansas State University. "People must know there is a risk, but the payoff is potentially enormous.... Conversely, if you admit you had a flat quarter or a flat year, then the market will penalize you."
Though enticements and pressures to lie may be stronger than in the past, another factor has cultural observers equally concerned: Individuals, it seems, are getting weaker when faced with temptation. Or put another way, many seem to know right from wrong, but material success has become more important to them than the task of sculpting moral character.
This assessment resonates with Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles. For signs of moral decay, he says, look no further than prime-time television. Shows such as "The Apprentice" and "Survivor," he says, send a clear message that the winner in life is often the one who deceives others without getting caught.
"Those shows are popular because people aren't offended by them," Mr. Josephson says in a phone interview. "Temptations were greater in the Depression when people were more desperate. So it's not that temptations are higher today. What's changed is that our defenses have gotten lower."
In a Josephson Institute survey, students at religious schools proved more likely to cheat and lie to parents and teachers than the national average. Meanwhile, the list keeps growing of top achievers who got snared in their own web of lies. Martha Stewart awaits sentencing for lying to investigators; 28 top federal employees hold fake degrees; journalists at USA Today, The New York Times, and The Nation have presented fiction as fact.
Seen most charitably, the ever-rising toll of lies told to get ahead might in part reflect a rising level of scrutiny and standards for leaders, according to Douglas Porpora, author of "Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in America." Although lying has always been around, he says, today's reporters who probe routinely into private lives are now more likely to find and expose it.
"In some senses, the bar has been raised in how the news covers it," says Dr. Porpora, who chairs the department of culture and communications at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "John F. Kennedy was having affairs left and right. That's dishonest, but we didn't care and the press left it alone."
Yet what's also noteworthy today, Porpora adds, is that the ordinary person is willing to tolerate routine lying under certain circumstances. When the crime seems practically harmless - to cheat the government out of a few tax dollars, or to bill a rich client for a few unworked hours - then the working guy seems to have won, according to Porpora and other analysts. And when the culprit seems repentant, Dr. Swanson says, punishments sometimes amount to a slap on the wrist.
Solutions to the lying epidemic, cultural analysts say, might involve dual approaches: lessening pressures to cheat and heightening resistance in individuals. Mr. Callahan emphasizes the need to fix incentive systems that he says have produced "too much competitiveness, too much insecurity," and "a gap between winners and losers that is too big." Josephson, meanwhile, suggests educating the next generation, who may be enticed by the potential payoffs for liars, about the hefty costs of deception and shame.
"The cost on the other side is too great. It's disgrace," Josephson says. He offers the example of Richard Scrushy, former CEO of HealthSouth Corp., whose indictment on 85 counts of fraud led a graffiti artist to scrawl "thief" across his statue in Birmingham, Ala. "We need to ask what our children will think of us when they say, 'Dad, you did what?' "
Given their mission to improve human character, religious institutions might be best positioned to restore the virtue of honesty, but they, too, face an uphill climb. According to the Rev. Jack Good, the church's own truth-telling crisis runs deeper than the sexual abuse scandal that engulfed the Roman Catholic Church and forced bishops to explain why they kept quiet about known predatory priests.
"People who come to church on Sunday don't see a people willing to confront conflict or tough issues or what biblical scholarship says about the Bible," says Mr. Good, a retired pastor in the United Church of Christ and author of "The Dishonest Church." "The church is setting a bad example [on truth-telling], and I think a case can be made that it reverberates through all of society."
Great progress could occur if Americans could reclaim the definitions of success as laid out in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, according to American University Islamic studies chairman Akbar Ahmed. The trouble is, he says, too many profess to abide by an ancient faith but in actuality their passion is for social status and material gain.
"Those assumptions [of life as a quest for moral improvement] cannot exist with a philosophy that you need to get to the top of the totem pole at all costs," Dr. Ahmed says. "You cannot have both."