Moral tales with positive outcomes motivate kids to be honest

June 18, 2014
Credit: Robert Kraft/public domain

A moral story that praises a character's honesty is more effective at getting young children to tell the truth than a story that emphasizes the negative repercussions of lying, according to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The findings suggest that stories such as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" and "Pinocchio" may not be effective cautionary tales when it comes to inspiring honest behavior in children.

Stories have long been employed to instill moral and cultural values in , but there is little research exploring the effectiveness of such stories.

"We should not take it for granted that classic moral stories will automatically promote moral behaviors," says lead author Kang Lee of the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto.

"As parents of young children, we wanted to know how effective the stories actually are in promoting honesty," adds study co-author and researcher Victoria Talwar of McGill University. "Is it 'in one ear, out the other,' or do children listen and take the messages to heart?"

To find out, Lee, Talwar, and colleagues conducted an experiment with 268 children ages 3 to 7. Each child played a game that required guessing the identity of a toy based on the sound it made. In the middle of the game, the experimenter left the room for a minute to grab a book, 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 a story, either "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 peeked at the toy.

Contrary to the researchers' expectations, "Pinocchio" and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" – which associate lying with negative consequences, such as public humiliation and even death – were no more effective at promoting honest behavior than a fable unrelated to honesty, in this case "The Tortoise and the Hare."

Only the apocryphal tale about a young George Washington seemed to inspire the kids to admit to peeking: Children who heard the tale in which the future first president is praised for confessing his transgression were three times more likely to tell the truth than their peers who heard other stories.

An additional experiment indicated that the positive focus of the George Washington story was responsible for kids' honest behavior. When the researchers changed the ending so that it took a negative turn, who heard the story were no longer more likely to admit to peeking.

Talwar believes that the original story about George Washington is effective because it demonstrates "the positive consequences of being honest by giving the message of what the desired behavior is, as well as demonstrating the behavior itself."

"Our study shows that to promote moral behavior such as honesty, emphasizing the positive outcomes of rather than the of dishonesty is the key," adds Lee. "This may apply to other moral behaviors as well."

Lee, Talwar, and colleagues caution that more research is necessary to determine whether moral stories influence kids' behavior long-term.

Still, they have been quick to take advantage of the findings. Talwar reports a shift in her own parenting practices:

"It really seems to work. I use this now with my child."

Explore further: Lied-to children more likely to cheat and lie

More information: Paper: pss.sagepub.com/content/early/ … 97614536401.abstract

Related Stories

Lied-to children more likely to cheat and lie

March 19, 2014
People lie—we know this. People lie to kids—we know this, too. But what happens next? Do children who've been lied to lie more themselves?

Harsh discipline fosters dishonesty in young children

October 24, 2011
Young children exposed to a harshly punitive school environment are more inclined to lie to conceal their misbehaviour than are children from non-punitive schools, a study of three- and four-year-old West African children ...

Use of spanking exacerbates aggressive child behavior

December 10, 2013
A mother's affection after she spanks her child does little to diminish the negative impact of the act, a new University of Michigan study finds.

Want a young child to 'help' or 'be a helper'? Choice of words matters

April 30, 2014
How do you get a preschooler to help with chores and other household tasks? A new study suggests that adults' word choice can make a big difference.

Mothers' symptoms of depression predict how they respond to child behavior

May 15, 2014
Depressive symptoms seem to focus mothers' responses on minimizing their own distress, which may come at the expense of focusing on the impact their responses have on their children, according to research published in Psychological ...

Recommended for you

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Psychopaths are better at learning to lie, say researchers

July 25, 2017
Individuals with high levels of psychopathic traits are better at learning to lie than individuals who show few psychopathic traits, according to a study published in the open access journal Translational Psychiatry. The ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

Higher cognitive abilities linked to greater risk of stereotyping

July 24, 2017
People with higher cognitive abilities are more likely to learn and apply social stereotypes, finds a new study. The results, stemming from a series of experiments, show that those with higher cognitive abilities also more ...

Exposure to violence hinders short-term memory, cognitive control

July 24, 2017
Being exposed to and actively remembering violent episodes—even those that happened up to a decade before—hinders short-term memory and cognitive control, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National ...

Researchers pave new path toward preventing obesity

July 24, 2017
People who experience unpredictable childhoods due to issues such as divorce, crime or frequent moves face a higher risk of becoming obese as adults, according to a new study by a Florida State University researcher.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RhoidSlayer
not rated yet Jun 18, 2014
lied to children are more likely to develop game strategies to deal with them

fool me once , your the wolf

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.