4/4/05 Contact: Roy Summerford, 334/844-9999 (summero@auburn.edu)
David Granger, 334/844-9999 (grangdm@auburn.edu)

TAX STUDY: TEMPTATION TO CHEAT IS STRONG FOR THOSE WHO THINK EVERYONE ELSE DOES SO

AUBURN – With the April 15 deadline approaching for income tax filing, does it seem that more people than ever before are cheating on their taxes?

If you answered yes to that question, chances are that you, too, have considered cheating on your taxes. That does not mean that you would actually do so, but the lure of “everybody does it” is felt even in tightly knit communities with strong religious bonds, according to a study by an international team of sociologists that included Tom Petee of Auburn University.

“Whether people are willing to participate in this kind of behavior is related to the perception that everybody’s doing it,” said Petee, who is interim chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work in AU’s College of Liberal Arts.

The perception may be false, and often is, but perception shapes action, Petee noted. “That kind of thinking can do a lot of damage to a community and to a larger society.”

The AU sociology professor was one of six researchers from the United States and Iceland who published the report “‘But Everybody Does It…’: The Effects of Perceptions, Moral Pressures and Informal Sanctions On Tax Cheating” in a recent issue of the journal Sociological Spectrum.

The other researchers were from Notre Dame, the University of Colorado at Denver, California State University at Northridge, St. Joseph’s College in Indiana and the University of Akureyi in Iceland.

The report presented the investigators’ findings on the influence of perceptions toward tax cheating in communities with social and religious ties among the residents.

Taking advantage of improvements in statistical software over the past two decades, the investigators analyzed results of a Notre Dame study in the 1980s of 36 non-Hispanic Roman Catholic parishes throughout the United States. Petee holds a Ph.D. from Notre Dame, and the lead researcher, Michael Welch, teaches there.

The researchers found that residents of all the communities were reluctant to consider cheating on their taxes and held harsh opinions against tax cheaters when they thought that the practice was rare. But those who thought that tax-cheating was widespread were more lenient toward the practice.

Although people who cheat on their taxes will try to justify their actions by claiming that everyone does it, Petee said the danger to society comes when people who consider tax-cheating to be morally wrong start to accept the “everybody does it” argument.

For instance, the investigators found that even those with strong religious convictions would attach less stigma to tax cheating when they thought that other parish members were cheating on their taxes. And, the researchers found a corrosive effect of a person’s past tax-cheating on other aspects of that person’s religious life.

However, among the majority who said they did not cheat on their taxes or think the practice was widespread, those with a strong religious commitment viewed tax cheating more harshly than their less-religious neighbors. In all those cases, participants cited both moral and community standards for adhering to the tax laws.

Petee said tax-cheating could open the door to a general decline of moral and community standards if everyone actually did adopt the “everybody does it” mentality. “Tax dodging creates a situation of moral ambiguity,” he said. “A breakdown of moral authority creates social strain and a downward spiral in the moral quality of a society.”

While individuals and communities have to be on their guard against the fallacy of “everyone does it,” government authorities must enforce the laws to prevent the perception from taking hold in society and becoming reality, Petee said.

“If people see low odds of getting caught and if they see others getting away with it, their respect for the law declines,” he explained.

Petee noted that the Internal Revenue Service does not have the resources to prevent all tax dodges, but he said the IRS appears to use its resources effectively through pursuit of high-profile cases, looking for suspect activity and using random audits for everyone else.

“My advice: Be honest,” Petee said. “Some people actually do get caught.”

Auburn University is a pre-eminent land-grant and comprehensive research institution with nearly 23,000 students and 6,500 faculty and staff. Ranked among the top 50 public universities nationally, Auburn is Alabama's largest educational institution, offering more than 230 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree programs.

(Contributed by Roy Summerford.)

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