Once upon a time, a group of researchers began to wonder whether telling children traditional stories meant to instill a sense of honesty actually worked. So they took three classic tales, shared them with three- to seven-year-olds, and waited for the results.
To their surprise, they found only one story—the one about young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree—was effective in getting fibbing kids to fess up. While hearing that tale produced only a modest improvement in honesty, the other two stories had no impact whatsoever.
“Our results indicate that extolling the positive consequences of honesty, rather than emphasizing the negative consequences of dishonesty, can promote honest behavior in your children,” concludes a Canadian research team led by University of Toronto psychologist Kang Lee. Its study is published in the journal Psychological Science.
The researchers describe two experiments, the first of which featured 268 children between the ages of three and seven. In separate 10-minute sessions, each of them was put in a situation in which they were tempted to cheat.
"Our results indicate that extolling the positive consequences of honesty, rather than emphasizing the negative consequences of dishonesty, can promote honest behavior in your children."
Specifically, they played a game in which they had to guess what a toy looked like based on the sound it made. Their fun was interrupted when the experimenter excused herself for one minute, ostensibly to retrieve a picture book from her car. She left strict instructions for the child not to peek at the next toy in line.
When she returned, the experimenter read the child one of four stories: “Pinocchio” (in which lying has immediate consequences—the growth of the title character’s nose); “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (which culminates in a bloodbath, since no one believes a habitually lying boy when he insists a dangerous animal is approaching); “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” (in which the future president admits his wrongdoing and gets kudos from his father for his honesty); and “The Tortoise and the Hare” (which has nothing to do with honesty, and was thus used as a neutral benchmark to measure the impact of the other stories).
After hearing the story, each child was asked if they looked at the toy while they were left alone. A hidden camera revealed most had done so: 88 percent of three-year-olds cheated, as had 68 percent of seven-year-olds. Whether they admitted as much was only influenced by the cherry tree tale.
“The children who heard the George Washington story were more than three times less likely to lie about peeking at the toy compared with the children who heard ‘The Tortoise and the Hare,’” the researchers report. In contrast, those who heard the other two stories were no more or less likely to confess than those in the control group.
So why was the story of young George so much more effective? To answer that question, the researchers conducted a second experiment, this one featuring 60 three- to seven-year-olds. It was identical to the first, except the researchers used an alternate version of the cherry tree story. In it, George lies about what he did; his father finds out, takes away his axe, “and tells him he is very disappointed in him.”
Children who heard that version of the story were no less likely to lie than those who heard “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The dark conclusion apparently negated any impulse to come clean.
Kang and his colleagues note that young children “typically wish to please adults,” which may be why the original version of the George Washington story, which featured a proud parent, was the most effective of the group. On the other hand, they note that it wasn’t all that effective, decreasing dishonesty by about 18 percent compared to the control story.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to find that the stories that emphasized punishment were completely ineffective in promoting honesty, while the one that promised parental praise did convince at least some kids to admit their wrongdoing. We cannot tell a lie: Rewarding honesty appears to be more effective than punishing dishonesty.