COMMENTARY: The Disease of Low Expectations

The serious damage done to our economy, social institutions, and personal relationships by widespread cheating and dishonesty is bad enough. But widespread acceptance of such behavior as inevitable threatens to make our future a lot worse. In effect, our culture is being infected by a disease: the disease of low expectations.

The disease is manifested by the corrosive assumption that human nature can’t be expected to withstand pressures or temptations. In other words, when there’s a conflict between self-interest and moral principles, self-interest – in fact, short-term self-interest – will generally prevail.

Thus, whenever a politician lies to get elected, a student cheats to get into college, or an executive commits fraud to save a job or earn a bonus, we blame the system rather than the individual. Under the influence of the disease of low expectations, an increasing army of apologists argue that both the carrot and the stick – previously thought to be valid motivating techniques – should be condemned and eliminated as corrupting influences that create irresistible pressures to cheat.

A school superintendent in Iowa once told me, “Cheating isn’t the problem; it’s the way we test.” We can’t expect students not to cheat, he implied, especially when the stakes are so high.

I wonder whether he would be as comfortable with a similar explanation of recent corporate scandals: “Fraudulent accounting isn’t the problem; it’s the way we compensate executives.”

Don’t buy into this dreadfully pessimistic and perverted perspective about human nature. Cheating is wrong and harmful. Integrity is real and possible. It just takes character.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 5

  1. I wholeheartedly agree! I work with college students on a daily basis and I have found that if we set high expectations for the most part they will rise to the occasion. Now there is the exception but that doesn’t mean we lower expectations at that point. Thanks for this commentary!

  2. The reason for low standards, in my opinions are:for the examples we has set for our younger generations and accepted them as normal. Why are we surprised when we have det the bar very low.

    1. When Nixon lied, he was not punished. In fact pardoned
    2. When Clinton cheated his wife and lied to the nation, he was not punished.
    3. There is more investigation when there is a car crash than when the twin towers went down. If you don’t believe me ask Michael Moore.
    4. We took our whole nation and some of our friends to a war on a pack of lies and we accepted this and now this is our new standard in the so called, New World order.
    5. The 2008 Economic disaster – many banks and insurance companies that had unethical practices were in fact given publics money to get themselves out of trouble. Not one of the banks directors or executive’s ever were punished or went go jail.
    The diseases of low expectation?

    Welcome to the so called New World Order, made in the USA.

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