A moral story that praises honesty is more effective at getting young children to tell the truth than a story that emphasizes the negative repercussions of lying, according to new research by Kang Lee, a professor at U of T’s Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study.
His findings suggest that stories such as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” may not inspire honest behaviour in children, despite the hopes of generations of parents.
To test whether cautionary tales work as intended, Lee and colleagues conducted an experiment with children aged three to seven. Each child played a game that required guessing the identity of a toy based on the sound it made. During the game, the experimenter left the room briefly, instructing the child not to peek at a toy that was left on the table. For most children, this temptation was too hard to resist.
When the experimenter returned, she read the child one of four stories – “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Pinocchio” or “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.” Afterward, the experimenter asked the child to tell the truth about whether he or she had peeked at the toy.
Children who heard “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” – stories that associate lying with strongly negative consequences – were no more likely to tell the truth than those who listened to “The Tortoise and the Hare,” a fable unrelated to honesty.
However, the children who heard the tale in which the future American president is praised for confessing his lie were three times more likely to tell the truth than those who heard the other stories. “To promote moral behaviour such as honesty, emphasizing the positive outcomes of honesty rather than the negative consequences of dishonesty is the key,” says Lee. “This may apply to other moral behaviours as well.”
Watch Prof. Kang Lee explain the truth about truth-telling to the Wall Street Journal