MADISON, NJ - The people of New Jersey – whose state is often regarded as one of the most corrupt in the U.S. – are more ethical than those in most of the countries in Europe. According to the latest research from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind™, New Jerseyans were asked the same series of questions used by the European Social Survey (ESS) to measure ethics, and the Garden State scored better than all but two of the 26 countries polled.
“This just goes to show that New Jersey’s reputation is probably exaggerated,” said Dan Cassino, PublicMind’s Director for Experimental Research. “Mass media hasn’t always been kind to Jersey, and The Sopranos and Jersey Shore aren’t exactly documentaries.”
The studies in Europe and New Jersey produce an index of ethics based on three situations. People are asked about the acceptability of making an exaggerated or false insurance claim, buying something that might have been stolen, and committing minor traffic offenses. The answers are combined to make a single score, which can range from a low of three to a high of twelve.
The average score for New Jersey is 10.4, significantly better than the 10.1 recorded in the U.K., 9.2 in Germany, 9.1 in France, and 8.8 in Russia. However, New Jersey respondents scored significantly lower than folks in Cyprus and Greece; in both countries, the average score was 10.7. New Jersey also tied with four countries: Israel, Sweden, Portugal and Denmark.
“Many studies have shown that people who say that these certain things are more acceptable are actually much more likely to do them,” said Cassino. “These questions have been pretty well validated in the past, and although people might be lying, there’s no reason to believe that people in New Jersey are lying more than people anywhere else.”
Cassino also noted the high ranking of the Garden State is largely driven by the small number who think that making false insurance claims is acceptable: four of five New Jerseyans (79%) say that making false claims is “seriously wrong;” only 23% of Germans and 34% of French agree.
New Jerseyans are more accepting of traffic offenses than they are of other behaviors: 42% say that committing a traffic offense, like running a red light or speeding, is “seriously wrong,” while 16% say that traffic infractions are “not at all wrong,” or “a little wrong.” Still, even this compares favorably to some Europeans: only 17% of Germans and 28% of Brits say that traffic offenses are seriously wrong.
So, how to explain New Jersey’s strong showing? “Even though people in New Jersey may not like who make the laws, they generally feel the system is fair,” said Cassino. “When people think the process is fair, they’re more likely to go along with the laws that emerge, whether they like them or not. If you’re in Russia, though, and you don’t trust the system, you also don’t care so much for the laws, and you feel you can or should do whatever you want to do, regardless of the law.”
The ESS study carried out in Europe shows that young people tend to have lower ethics scores than older respondents: The same pattern emerges in FDU’s New Jersey study. Among respondents under the age of 30, the average score is only 9.9, which would rank them somewhere between Spain and Bulgaria.
“This doesn’t mean that the new generation is somehow worse,” apologized Cassino, age 30. “Attitudes are about internalizing laws and norms, and young people have spent less time in society. If ten years from now, scores continue to decline, that’s when we’ll know something is going wrong.”
Other differences are found in ideology and in casino-going. People who say that they (or someone in their household) had been to a casino or slots parlor in the last month are less ethical than those who have not been to a casino or slots parlor. Also, people who describe themselves as liberal politically (10.0) score slightly but significantly lower than those who describe themselves as moderates (10.4) or conservatives (10.6).
The Fairleigh Dickinson University poll of 903 New Jersey adults aged 18 and older was conducted statewide by telephone using both landlines and cell phones from April 30 through May 6, 2012, and has a margin of error of +/-3.5 percentage points.