The truth about lies reveals our wobbly moral compass

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Those looking for proof the nation is going straight to hell in a handcart, have found persuasive evidence in the results of an online integrity test.

According to academics from the University of Essex, over the last 10 years we have become increasingly dishonest. Lying on a job application? Well as long as it’s not a wholescale fraud no-one seems to mind. Cheating on tax returns? Why not if you can get away with it? Dodging the odd bus or train fare? Ditto.

The same survey was carried out in 2000 and in the last decade tolerance to the occasional lie has grown and attitudes to extra-material affairs have become much more accepting. Curious to see where I fell on the honesty scale I took a slightly abbreviated version of the test. Sainthood is not on the horizon.

Would I ever drive while under the influence, buy stolen goods or throw litter in a public place? No. Do I ever think there are circumstances when it’s justified to drive faster than the speed limit, keep money you found on the street or add a little flourish to a job application? Well, yes.

As a result I scored 50 per cent, well below the level needed to be classed as an upstanding and honest citizen of 21st-century Britain. No-one is entirely sure why our moral compass has wobbled, but if the study is correct it has definitely shifted.

Ten years ago 70 per cent of the 2,000 people questioned believed affairs were never justified, but that figure has now dropped to just half. Similarly, the proportion who said picking up money found in the street was never justified has dropped from almost 40 per cent to 20 per cent.

In fact, benefit fraud was the only category in which people seem to have taken a more hardline approach. But does it really matter if people occasionally do 45mph in a 40mph zone or claim they graduated with a first class degree when they actually scraped home with a third?

Unsurprisingly, Professor Paul Whiteley, author of the study and director of the Essex Centre for the Study of Integrity, believes it does. Without honesty, he says, our sense of civic duty begins to unravel and society suffers.

“Trust is important because it allows individuals to move beyond their own immediate family or communities and engage in co-operative activities with strangers,” he says. “High level of trust in society help to save on what economists call transaction costs – the price people pay for doing business.

“In a trusting society these costs are likely to be small, since if people give their word that they will do something then generally they can be expected to deliver on that promise. There is no need to draw up elaborate legal contracts to enforce agreements.

“In a non-trusting society, however, things are different and enforcement mechanisms such as formal contracts and courts are required to ensure compliance, and these all make the cost of doing business higher. Clearly, integrity is essential to the building of trust.

“Empirical research suggests that societies in which trust and integrity are strong perform much better on a range of economic and political indicators than societies where they are weak.”

Honesty may well be the best policy, but surely it’s the little white lies, the fibs and half truths which make the world go round? Would anyone really want to live in a world where everyone always told the truth?

Probably not and, for Prof Whiteley, the initial research has thrown up as many questions as it has answers.

“If social capital is low and people are suspicious and don’t work together, those communities have worse health, worse educational performance, they are less happy and they are less economically developed and entrepreneurial,” he says.

“More recent research has shown that trust is equally important in Britain. So a lack of integrity has serious consequences for society. This highlights the need to research integrity and its apparent decline over time.

“It raises many important issues such as how do people actually define dishonesty? Can individuals genuinely disagree about what honesty means in practice. Is honesty all of a piece or is it compartmentalised in people’s lives?

“In other words can they be honest in one context and dishonest in another? How in practice does a lack of integrity influence business, social life and other aspects of society? These and a host of related questions will be subjects for further research in the future.”