All parents have to come to terms with the fact that their little angels will, from time to time, act like little devils. They’ll throw tantrums over trivial issues, or they’ll push, hit, bite or scratch other kids. And at some point they’ll start lying about what they’ve done.
Lying is perfectly normal among children, not a sign of a sociopath in the making. Many kids start telling the odd fib around their second birthday, and by the time they’re 4 or 5 they’re even better at the art of manipulating the truth, and keeping it from us. So how can parents help their kids internalise the lesson that honesty is the best — or at least the socially preferred — policy?
A team of educational psychologists led by Victoria Talwar recruited 372 children aged between 4 and 8 years old, and put them through a "temptation resistance" task in which they were left alone in a room for one minute with a toy placed behind them and out of sight, and told not to peek at it. When the experimenter returned, the kids, who were being filmed by a hidden camera, were asked whether they looked or not.
Previous studies using this set up found that 72–93 per cent of children under 8 years of age looked at the toy and then lied about it. Out the 372 children in this new study, 251 (67.5 per cent) looked at the toy, though older kids were less likely to peek. Of the peekers, 66.5 per cent lied about doing so, again with older kids being less likely to lie about it.
The new study, however, didn’t just look at levels of lying, but also at how appeals to honesty influenced lying, and whether the threat of punishment promoted or hindered truth-telling. To probe these questions, kids were split into six groups who were told different things when the experimenter returned to ask whether they had snuck a look — and in one group the peekers showed an impressively low rate of lying of just 35 per cent.
What was the secret? The researchers encouraged honesty in these children with a two-pronged pronouncement. First they told the children “If you peeked at the toy, it does not matter” (the no-punishment condition), and then they gave them an explicit "external" reason to be truthful (“If you tell the truth, I will be really pleased with you. I will feel happy if you tell the truth”). In the absence of punishment, an alternative, “internal appeal” for honesty (“It is really important to tell the truth because telling the truth is the right thing to do when someone has done something wrong”) was not quite so effective — lying rates only dropped to 45 per cent.
It might seem that the increase in honesty was driven by the absence of punishment — after all, if you won’t get in trouble, why bother lying? Yet this can’t be the whole story, as kids in a no-punishment condition that did not include any kind of appeal to truth-telling still lied more than 85 per cent of the time, showing that appeals for honesty had a powerful effect.
At the same time, the threat of punishment worked against both kinds of appeal: when kids were told they would get in trouble for lying, and were then given either an external or internal reason to tell the truth, lying remained high, at 60 and 86 per cent, respectively.
So while many parents looking to increase their children’s honesty might opt for one of two diametrically opposed options — the carrot of reward, or the stick of punishment — this new research shows there’s an important third route to take: appealing to the better angels of kids’ nature, and encouraging honesty because it will make others happy.
These findings also have obvious relevance for people who work with children in a range of professional roles and who want or need to encourage honesty and accurate reporting of events. “Positive consequences resulting from truth telling should be emphasized and negative consequences for transgressing should be avoided in order to promote honesty in young children,” the researchers write. Looking to the future, they suggest that further studies should explore whether the same dynamics apply to children when it comes to telling the truth about the transgressions of other people, and also whether adolescents are susceptible to the same appeals to honesty and threats of punishment.
Talwar, V., Arruda, C., & Yachison, S. (2015). The effects of punishment and appeals for honesty on children’s truth-telling behavior Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 130, 209-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.09.011
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Post written by Dan Jones (@MultipleDraftz) for the BPS Research Digest. Dan Jones is a freelance writer based in Brighton, UK, whose writing has appeared in The Psychologist, New Scientist, Nature, Science and many other magazines. He blogs at www.philosopherinthemirror.wordpress.com.