We, The People: Greedy, Amoral, And Shallow


By James Patterson and Peter Kim

Prentice Hall -- 270pp -- $19.95

Most people have feelings and secrets they keep to themselves--sharing with neither spouse nor lover, relative nor friend. On occasion, however, they may unload their innermost thoughts on a stranger they'll never see again. Capitalizing on that phenomenon--and sensing a shift in U. S. values--two senior executives of J. Walter Thompson set out to explore the American psyche circa 1990.

Promising anonymity, James Patterson, chairman of JWT North America, and Peter Kim, director of research services and consumer behavior, queried some 2,000 people in 50 places. In an 1,800-question survey and follow-up interviews, they asked about love, family, religion, politics, work, and community. They gave an additional 3,700 people a shorter questionnaire. The result is The Day America Told the Truth. It's a thin book that's long on factoids and short on analysis, a trait that at first seems a fault but eventually becomes an asset.

True to expectations, nearly 50% of the respondents say that nobody really knows them. They reveal that most of their secrets (71%) are sexual in nature--concerning old lovers, infidelities (admitted by 31% of married respondents and lasting almost a year, on average), fantasies (oral sex, most commonly), and complaints (not enough sex for men, not enough foreplay for women). No big surprises there or in Truth's sections on marriage and male-female relationships. Readers can find more insight on these topics elsewhere.

Truth fares better on other fronts--although the American public it depicts often does not. The book's data show we have few moral absolutes: Most people decide situationally whether it's all right to steal, lie, or drink and drive. We have no real heroes: Our admiration goes willy-nilly to celebrities. We tolerate violence: Two-thirds say physical force is often justified. We pay little attention to our community: Two-thirds never give any time to community activities, and 72% don't know the people next door.

The book offers plenty of evidence that Americans are materialistic and shallow. A quarter of those surveyed, for example, say they'd abandon their families for $10 million, and 23% say they'd become a prostitute for a week for the same sum. In follow-up interviews, these results hold as the price falls--until it drops below $2 million.

Asked what aspect of their life they would change, nearly two-thirds of the sample say their "wealth"--a dream that extends to the younger generation, if the authors' separate discussions with sixth-graders are any guide. Given one wish, most would pick money--as one boy puts it, "five million dollars and two days at the mall." Meanwhile, nearly one-third of all Americans have never contributed to any charitable cause.

The book's portrait of the business world is just as damning. Both managers and workers cite low manageri-al ethics as a key causeof our competitive woes. Among the charges: Managers intimidate employees, violate safety standards, discriminate against minorities and women, make products that endanger lives, and commit outright crimes.

No wonder, then, that workers admit they spend more than seven hours of the workweek goofing off--malingering, drinking, using drugs, or calling in sick when they're not--even though most believe America's economic power matters more than military might. The problem, perhaps, is that only one-tenth of the respondents are satisfied with their jobs, and half believe one gets ahead by playing office politics and cheating, not by hard work.

Depressed yet? If not, then read the sections on the end of childhood (20% of our kids have sex before 13, respondents say), AIDS (over one-third of those who have it say they wouldn't tell their partner), crime (60% have been the victim of at least one crime), and on and on. Women, at least, may be cheered to learn that on all levels, and in every region, they come out as more upstanding than men. They appear to lie and malinger less, for example. The one exception: Women are more suspicious, more willing to search a partner's pockets, read someone else's mail, and eavesdrop on phone calls. That women have higher morals is one of the 54 "revelations" with which the authors end their book, along with an unoriginal analysis of America's problems andsome proposed solutions.What do these findings really mean? Poll junkies could no doubt turn up contradictory results for many topics. Responses depend largely on how pollsters ask questions, and although the authors describe their methodology, they don't print the questionnaire. They merely say their "cathartic" technique--a long survey, asking some questions several ways, then interviews--gets at truth better than other methods.

Maybe. But their approach knocks out anyone who wouldn't sit through so long a process yet might answer a brief phone poll. So read Truth not as a definitive study of the American state of mind but as a thought-provoking voyage into the minds of some Americans. Many of its findings are fascinating. Did you know that liberals are more willing to kill than conservatives? Or that more men than women would like to change their age?


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