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Does Reading 'Moral' Stories to Children Promote Honesty?

06/17/2014 03:25 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2014
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All over the world, young children are exposed to classic fairy tales, myths and other stories. Most kids love hearing stories, but in addition to being a fun activity, storytelling is also thought of as an educational tool that can promote moral reasoning and honesty. Conventional wisdom suggests that fairy tales in which dishonest protagonists are punished might help convince the listening children to become truth-tellers. There is surprisingly little scientific data to back up this conventional wisdom, so a team of researchers in Canada from the University of Toronto, McGill University and Brock University studied how narrating classic "moral" stories to young children affected their willingness to tell the truth. It turns out that the purported honesty-promoting effect of certain myths is somewhat of a myth.

The study conducted by Dr. Kang Lee and colleagues was recently published in the article "Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children?" (published online on June 13, 2014 in Psychological Science). The researchers recruited children (ages 3 to 7) from two metropolitan areas in Canada for their study. In the first experiment (268 children), individual children were asked to play a guessing game in which they were seated with their back toward a table. The experimenter was seated on the opposite side of the table and placed a toy on the table, which gave a sound upon pressing a button, which elicited a sound that was commonly associated with the toy. For example, pressing a button on a toy duck would make the duck quack. The child was then asked to guess the nature of the toy merely based on hearing the sound, without being allowed to turn around and actually see the toy. After some initial questions, the experimenter told the child that she had forgotten a storybook. She placed a new toy on the table, and asked the child not to turn around while she was getting the storybook.

After leaving the room, the experimenter could not see or hear the child and was therefore blind to whether or not the child had turned around and peeked at the new toy. However, another experimenter was video-recording the child with hidden cameras. One minute later, the experimenter re-entered the room, told the child to keep facing away from the table and quickly covered the target toy with a cloth. The experimenter then asked the child to turn around and read a story to the child. Children were assigned to hear either The Tortoise and the Hare (the control story without a clear 'moral' lesson about honesty/dishonesty) or one of the following experimental stories:

1. Pinocchio - The story in which the puppet-boy's nose grows longer each time he tells a lie.

2. The Boy Who Cried Wolf - The story of a little shepherd boy who often lies about being attacked by a wolf. When the wolf really appears, no one believes the boy, and he as well as his sheep are devoured by the wolf.

3. George Washington and the Cherry Tree - The famous anecdote of the 6-year-old George Washington (which is also thought to be more of a myth than an actual historical event) who cut down a cherry tree with a hatchet, but truthfully admitted to doing so when he questioned by his father. The father did not punish him, but praised him for his honesty.

All stories were about the same length, and the experimenter made sure that the child had understood the basic elements of the chosen story (each child only heard one story).

If the child had heard The Boy Who Cried Wolf or Pinocchio, the experimenter said to the child, "I'm going to ask you a question, and I don't want you to be like the boy who cried wolf. I want you to tell me the truth, OK?" or "I'm going to ask you a question, and I don't want you to be like Pinocchio. I want you to tell me the truth, OK?" After the child agreed to tell the truth, she asked, "Did you turn around and peek at the toy when I left the room?"

A similar procedure was repeated for children who heard George Washington and the Cherry Tree, but here the experimenter told the children, "I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to be like George Washington in the story. I want you to tell me the truth, OK? Did you turn around and peek at the toy when I left the room?"

Children who heard The Tortoise and the Hare were asked, "I am going to ask you a question, and I want you to tell me the truth, OK? Did you turn around and peek at the toy when I left the room?"

When the researchers later analyzed the hidden camera video recordings, they found that the vast majority of children had indeed turned around during the brief moment while the experimenter was gone. Age was the major predictor of whether or not the child would sneak a peek at the toy. Among 3-year olds, 88% of the kids turned around and looked at the toy, whereas only 68% of 7-year olds turned around.

Anyone who has kids or has worked with little kids should not be surprised by these findings. Little children are extremely curious and it is rather hard to resist the temptation of peeking. The more interesting questions are whether or not the "peekers" confessed to their cheating and whether hearing the 'moral' stories made a difference. The surprising finding was that only about a third of the peekers who heard the The Tortoise and the Hare story, Pinocchio story and The Boy Who Cried Wolf story confessed that they had cheated. Apparently, hearing about the dire consequences of lying such as having a wolf feast on the liar did not increase the likelihood of telling the truth. However, the kids who had heard the George Washington story had a significantly higher rate of truth-telling: Roughly half of the kids admitted to peeking at the toy while the experimenter had left the room!

The researchers wondered about why the George Washington story had been so effective. One possible explanation was that the story had a positive outcome, with George Washington being rewarded for truth-telling, whereas the other two stories (Pinocchio or wolf) focused on the bad outcomes of lying. So the researchers decided to conduct a second experiment in which they modified the George Washington story. In this "negative" version, George Washington lies to his father by telling him that he did not cut down the cherry tree, but his father later on finds out the truth. As punishment for his lying, George's father takes away George's ax and tells him that he is very disappointed in him because he told a lie.

The children in this second experiment were exposed to the same set-up and scoring as in the first experiment, but the results are quite remarkable: The truth-telling rate of children hearing the negative version of the George Washington dropped to below 30%, very similar to the control story, the Pinocchio story or the wolf story. This suggests that the truth-promoting power of the classic George Washington story may be due to the fact that he is rewarded or praised for his honesty.

This research reveals an important mechanism of how "moral" stories can promote truth-telling, and could be of great value for parents of teachers. Stories may promote honesty if they offer positive role models ("be like George Washington") and emphasize the benefits of honesty instead of focusing on the dire consequences of dishonesty. Instead of just assuming that all 'moral' stories promote moral values, one has to carefully distinguish between stories that use positive versus negative role models. This study only investigated the impact of storytelling on honesty, but it is not clear whether similar effects would also be seen in stories that are thought to promote other moral values such as compassion or courage. This study was remarkably well-designed with appropriate control groups and hopefully this study will serve as an inspiration for future research into the impact of story-telling on children.