Dishonesty is not the clear-cut concept the criminal courts assume because it can vary from person to person and situation to situation, according to one of the biggest-ever surveys of public attitudes to deceitful behaviour.
Women are more likely than men to categorise some behaviour as dishonest, although men are more likely than women to convict someone of a dishonest crime in a court of law, the study found.
Older people more readily judge someone as being dishonest than younger people, although the situation is reversed for certain youth-oriented offences such as cheating in exams or prying in someone else's email account.
The online study analysed the attitude of some 15,000 participants to 50 different scenarios in 10 categories that involved varying degrees of dishonest behaviour, from claiming for an expensive insurance fraud to eating grapes in a supermarket without paying for them.
The research was carried out by two academic criminologists who wanted to test a central thesis of what constitutes dishonesty in law, namely that dishonesty as a state of mind is based legally upon the "ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people".
"The law is based on an assumption that the majority in society hold the same views about what conduct is dishonest," said Stefan Fafinski, a criminal lawyer at Brunel University, who carried out the study. "Our research challenges that assumption. We found a great deal of disagreement, even upon very basic situations," Dr Fafinski said.
The study found 31 per cent of people thought it dishonest for someone to keep money found in the street, yet only 8 per cent would convict someone of theft for doing that if they were prosecuted.
Nearly two thirds of people said they had taken stationery home from work, but 82 per cent thought it dishonest, according to the study, released today at the British Science Festival at Surrey University, Guildford. Big discrepancies were found between online crime and physical crime. Nearly 97 per cent of participants said taking a DVD from a shop was dishonest, yet only 58 per cent thought it dishonest to download pirated music, and 49 per cent said it was dishonest to buy a pirate DVD.
Only 43 per cent of people called it dishonest for a carer to try to persuade an elderly person to change their will in their favour (twice as many thought it dishonest to wear a dress before returning it to the shop). Only 21 per cent would convict a carer of such an offence. Some 98 per cent of women considered it dishonest for a man to conduct an online romance behind his wife's back, but only 74 per cent of men agreed.
"Women are more likely to categorise a person's conduct as dishonest but less likely to convict that person of the offence," said Dr Emily Finch, a criminologist at Brunel University. "Female participants are more likely to excuse conduct by reference to the circumstances or character of the person involved."