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Survey: Litterers worse than tax cheats

People say they would be more embarrassed to be caught shoplifting or littering than they would be if they were caught cheating on their taxes.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 2, 2012 7:26PM

This post is by Janet Novack of


A new survey suggests Americans consider cheating on their taxes more socially acceptable than shoplifting, drunken driving or even throwing trash out the window of a moving car.


The Shelton Group, a green marketing firm based in Knoxville, Tenn., had 1,105 Americans complete online surveys in an effort to find out what kind of messages will make them adopt more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient products and behaviors. Toward the end of the survey, the respondents were asked directly: "How embarrassed would you be if someone you knew found out that you . . . " and then read a list of presumably undesirable behaviors, in randomized order.


The highest percentage of respondents -- 73% -- said they’d be "very embarrassed"  if someone they admired found out they were shoplifting, followed by 65% for driving under the influence, 59% for throwing trash out the window of a moving car and 57% for cheating on their taxes.


Another 14% said they’d be "somewhat" embarrassed by shoplifting (for a total of 87% at all embarrassed); 17% said they’d be somewhat embarrassed by DUI (for a total of 82%) and 21% said they'd be somewhat embarrassed by littering or cheating on their taxes (for a total of 80% and 78%, respectively). (Post continues after video.)

In the IRS Oversight Board’s 2011 Taxpayer Attitude Survey, 84% of the public said it is "not at all acceptable to cheat on one's income taxes."’ Still, in that survey, only 66% of the participants said they "completely agree" that "everyone who cheats on their taxes should be held accountable" and only 72% completely agreed that "it's every American's civic duty to pay their fair share of taxes" -- suggesting, as the Shelton study does, that perhaps disapproval of tax evasion is not as strong as, say, disapproval of stealing from private businesses.


Suzanne Shelton, the head of the firm that commissioned the green survey, said she wasn’t surprised that shoplifting and drunken driving caused more embarrassment than tax cheating. "Americans probably think screwing the IRS out of a couple hundred is not so bad," she said.


While her firm has been conducting green surveys for nine years, it has never asked the embarrassment question directly before, and Shelton said she was surprised by a few of the other results -- the high embarrassment about littering and relatively low embarrassment about smoking. Only 39% said they would be "very embarrassed" if someone they admired found out they were smoking.


As for littering meeting marginally more disapproval than tax cheating, couldn’t that be a function of the fact that respondents knew they were taking a green attitudes test? Shelton doesn't think so.  She points to the fact that four of the environmentally incorrect behaviors the survey asked about were found "very embarrassing" by 20% or fewer of the respondents. They were failing to recycle plastic bottles, using primarily paper plates and cups, letting the water run while brushing your teeth, and keeping the thermostat set at 73 degrees. (Take that, Jimmy Carter.)


Throwing trash out a car window, she speculates, has become socially unacceptable thanks to decades of public service anti-littering advertisements. The Keep America Beautiful organization, which produces the ads, was started way back in 1953 by a consortium of government agencies, nonprofit groups and companies whose products were blamed for highway litter, including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Philip Morris (now the Altria Group). 


"I saw the ads growing up,"’ Shelton said. "I knew if I threw trash out my window, I was going to make that Native American man cry. It’s an iconic ad." (If you’re too young to have seen the ad, created for Earth Day in 1970, it's on YouTube here.)


Wonder what impact an ad showing Uncle Sam crying would have on views toward tax cheating? Somehow, I just don’t think that image would have the same impact.


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Apr 3, 2012 10:36AM
People who litter should be shot, they're just too freaking ignorant and lazy to be allowed to live: worthless human garbage!
Apr 3, 2012 1:38PM
Agreed.  Cigarette butt litterers are everywhere.  When did using the ashtray in your car become passe? 
Apr 3, 2012 12:38PM
My petpeeve are those people who throw their cigarrette butts out the window, is not that littering?  Yet, when we asked a police office what they would do, the response was 'it depends'  I don't think either are great...but agree, litterers and cig.butt throwers are usually chubby, fugly, ignorant, lazy losers.  tax cheats are usually just smarter than the system.
Apr 4, 2012 11:18AM

I would imagine the attitudes that it is more socially acceptable to cheat on taxes might be different if the public felt that our government and law makers were being fiscally responsible with the revenue collected from tax payers.  But when we watch our hard-earned money spent so carelessly by the federal government, it's pretty hard to get cross with those who feel they're being asked to pay too much.


I've often thought about taxpayers having the option on their tax return to pay additional tax to be applied directly towards the national debt (similar to the campain contributions options) to ease the burden our generation is placing on our kids.  But without fiscal responsibility from our leaders, any additional money paid into the system is just license to spend.

Apr 5, 2012 8:27AM

I beg to differ!! It's like comparing sin,how is 1 worse than the other?

littering actually isnt as bad..u can go and pick ur trash back up..Smile

Apr 3, 2012 1:26PM
LOL LOL  I'm with you Someone, but there are many other categories  to include !! LOL
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