About half of Americans think that businessmen are less ethical than the rest of the society and that business ethics are declining, according to a Gallup Poll released here today.

The poll was presented by Gallup vice president Leonard Wood to a conference of about 350 business executives, academicians and government officials from across the country meeting at Bentley College here in a conference on business ethics.

Of the 1,500 adults interviewed during January in the nationwide poll, 49 per cent said that business and business executives were less ethical than the rest of the society and 52 per cent said the business ethics were getting worse.

The poll found 36 per cent who said business ethics were higher than society in general and 31 per cent who believed business ethics were improving.

Greed for money was listed as the main reason by 39 per cent of those who thought businessmen were becoming less ethical. Another 26 per cent attributed the decline of a drop in the standards and morals of society in general.

However, Harvard University sociologist Daniel Bell said public concern with business ethics has risen and fallen many times in the past.

Bell said the historical trend is that business is becoming less corrupt and he recalled the days of the "robber barron" and the rise of the great entrepreneurial families such as the Vanderbilts and the Goulds in the last century.

Participants in the Gallup Poll said the practices they find most "troublesome" were misleading advertising and cheating customers.

Perhaps the most striking insight into public opinion on the ethics of the nation's business person was how widespread the 1,500 respondents think the unethical practices are. They were given the choices of "very common, somewhat common, some what uncommon and rarely happens."

Political contributions by big business ranked the highest, being seen by 80 per cent of the respondents as either very or somewhat common. But well over half saw bribes, misleading advertising, cheating customers, price fixing and failure to live up to contracts also as very or somewhat common.

In an indiction of how the public sees the effect of government regulations on business, 74 per cent agreed with the statement that "despite increased government regulation of business, business can still do pretty much what it wants."

"Given the mood of mistrust and lack of confidence in all institutions and the general apprehension about bigness, the belief that government regulation has done little to control business has to be potentially significant," Wood said. "Public pressure for more controls can be expected to continue, if not intensify."