Are Americans honest?

“Most of us are honest all the time, and all of us are honest most of the time.”

U.S. Congressman Charles McMathias Jr.


Suppose you are riding in a car driven by a close friend. After a good dinner, he’s driving you home. It’s late, perhaps rainy. He’s going fast. The road curves sharply. Suddenly he hits a pedestrian. You stop and phone for help. A couple of minutes later you hear sirens approaching. Then your friend turns to you and whispers, “please! Tell the police I was obeying the speed limit.” He’s pleading with you, beseeching you. What do you say?

The Evidence
Source: ISSP, Religion II, 1998

  • 88% of Americans would rat on their pal, at least in this hypothetical survey question. The French, Italians, Japanese and Russians are far readier to lie to the law to save a friend’s skin. Latvians have mislaid their moral compass – either that or they’re disarmingly honest at answering ‘what-if’ questions. So are Americans a bunch of straight-arrow George Washingtons, unable to manage a fib about a chopped-down cherry tree?
  • Not really. A group called Transparency International ranks 102 countries for corruption – things like money-laundering, bought elections, bribery and tax evasion. Paraguay, Nigeria and Bangladesh are bottom-feeders, while Finland, Denmark and New Zealand are squeaky clean. The U.S. is an uninspiring sixteenth.
  • And America’s youth doesn’t offer much hope for improvement. Among high school students, three quarters admit to cheating in an exam during the past twelve months, a percentage that’s been going up for a decade.

I did not have sexual relations with that woman
In America, personal honesty is highly valued – it’s the first thing Americans say they look for in a friend. Telling whoppers is, after all, one of the Deadly Sins. If you have intimate relations with your intern, that’s poor judgement, but lie about it to the nation and you risk being kicked out of office. The same goes for covering up break-ins and erasing the audio tapes. For Americans, honesty equates to directness. Yes means yes, no means no and anything else is just weasel words.

Despite this, there’s plenty of dishonesty in America and not just by Slick Willy, Tricky Dickie and dozens of other politicians. Celebrities get away with rape and murder, given the best lawyers. Or take baseball, America’s field of bygone dreams. The Chicago Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series and their infamy lives on nearly a century later. Pete Rose gambling on games, players on steroids, home-run sluggers with cork bats – these scandals are big deals. Maybe you can’t trust the government, CEOs, murky special interests or their lawyers, but wistful Americans badly want their national pastime to be pure.

Want to dig deeper?
ISSP multi-country surveys

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