Can classic moral stories promote honesty in children?

Here is the latest in a rather long-standing debate:

Kang Lee et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming

The classic moral stories have been used extensively to teach children about the consequences of lying and the virtue of honesty. Despite their widespread use, there is no evidence whether these stories actually promote honesty in children. This study compared the effectiveness of four classic moral stories in promoting honesty in 3- to 7-year-olds. Surprisingly, the stories of “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” failed to reduce lying in children. In contrast, the apocryphal story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” significantly increased truth telling. Further results suggest that the reason for the difference in honesty-promoting effectiveness between the “George Washington” story and the other stories was that the former emphasizes the positive consequences of honesty, whereas the latter focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty. When the “George Washington” story was altered to focus on the negative consequences of dishonesty, it too failed to promote honesty in children.

The pointer is from the excellent Kevin Lewis.


This is not that interesting unless we know more about the cohort the study subjects came from. How many of them were there? What were their class and racial backgrounds? What was the likelihood of them actually experiencing a negative consequence?

If you tested ten African American children whose prior exposure to George Washington was in the context of slave owning hypocrites, these stories might not have the desired impact. If you tested ten middle class White Canadian children, as they seem to, almost anything might work - especially as they may never have experienced any negative consequences.

I would suggest in the interests of science, they introduce their test subjects to mild electric shocks for no reason whatsoever, before re-telling the Washington story with Young George being sent to the electric chair for dishonesty. Then they might have more meaningful results.

3 year old kids have a great exposure to George Washington? I'd never imagined.

If. Powerful word.

Yeah, you should want to know about their work histories, what medications they take, do they take illegal drugs, are they in a gang, and do they read Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Do they read Ta-Nehisi Coates? Are they called Ta-Nehisi Coates!

Absolutely. All of this would help. Such studies are usually garbage. They are garbage for several reasons - small sample sizes being the main one. But the 1950s assumption that all children are like White middle class children is another. So yes, the more information collected, the better.

GW and the apocryphal cherry tree: so the moral is that we need more lying in favor of not lying?

Makes sense to me!

Can you think of a true story where honesty is actually rewarded? Honestly, nothing comes to mind.

tragedy of the commons? If honesty is the norm, the world would be better and the reward to lying would be higher. So we liars encourage others to be honest in the hopes they fall for it.

If, instead you ask for stories where dishonesty is punished, you need only look at every political scandal where a failed cover-up blows up what would otherwise have been ignored by the press. I'm not saying that there aren't also a lot of successful cover-ups such that their expected value is still positive.

More importantly, rewarded honesty is such a boring everyday thing that it rarely is a story. Basically if you let your lover, employer or whatever know that you have a small problem, then they will usually help you prevent it from becoming a big problem. True this works best for small issues, and for existing friendships, but that's what keeps civilisation together.

Is the lesson of stories where lies result in punishment "don't lie" or is it "lie well so you're not caught"?

"Of course there are many circumstances under which it is indeed wrong to lie. Perhaps the most important of these is when parents or other trusted adults (including politicians!) are talking to children, especially about issues of morality."

It seems there were no statistical controls used in the analysis, according to an ungated draft copy of the research on Kang Lee's website. It's just the age group, the story they heard, and their interaction term. Assuming a child's instinct to imitate her parents outweighs all else, wouldn't we want a variable to represent parental propensity for honesty? (or any number of other demographic variables?) Sure, the data might not be trivial to gather, but I'd expect parental honesty to vary widely even within a pretty homogeneous population.

The real reason GW wasn't punished by his father was that Georgie was still holding the ax.

And, he wasn't a very good environmentalist either, chopping down that tree.

Childrens' TV in the '50s was all morality plays: The Lone Ranger, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Captain Midnight, and so on.

How I learned not to steal: The year was 1995, I had just turned 5 and the movie "Toy Story" had just come out. Once fine afternoon my mother took me and my little sister to a doctors office. In the doctor's office there was a children's play area filled with toys, including some brand new toys from the movie. Well as you would imagine, we had our pediatric appointments like normal, but on the way out I pocketed one of the new Toy Story toys. I believe it was one of those little green aliens that used to say "The Clawwww". Once we're in the car, my little sister who is only 2 or 3 starts crying because she wants to play with the toy I grabbed. My mother turns around, asks whats going on, where did you get that, etc. and I admit everything to her. She tells me stealing is wrong and I can't just take things. But does it end there? No. My mother pulls the car up in front of the office, and tells me that I have to go inside (BY MYSELF) to the lady at the desk, and admit to her that I stole the toy, before I return it. Well I'm crying, begging my mom not to make me do this, to suffer the shame, but she opens the side door of the van and just pushes me towards the office. Man did that stick with me.

I don't believe you.

What, you never played with toys?

That's the point, isn't it?

If the stories did not have moral teaching value, why bother passing them on? Story time isn't like chocolates, although it may feel even better.

I think we could do away with religious doctrine and achieve many similar desirable ends by focusing on the ethical lessons of diverse traditional stories. Doctrine leads too many people to fundamentalism, which all too often leads to xenophobic inclinations towards war.

Why do you think either of those rather banal claims are true?

Other people have tried to achieve similar aims with the Sesame Street approach. It doesn't seem to work. Or to put it another way, all the breakthroughs in DNA and crime fighting have led to a drop in the rape rate .... to where it was in 1970 before the decline of Christianity had much impact. Those ethnically diverse stories don't seem to be working. Not sure that Br'er Rabbit is going to teach much in the way of morality anyway.

The level of xenophobia in any society seems to be a fixed given. Not something that religion adds to or takes away from. Although belonging to a large multi-cultural and multi-racial religion like Catholicism or Islam should work. Doesn't seem to though. However the big wars in human history - like the biggest examples of genocide and slavery - have come with the decline of religion and the rise of atheistic alternatives. So not much hope there either.

Assuming the results are true, my guess is that this is one of those cases where identity beats incentives. Stories with the message "lies get punished" work on incentives, trying to lower the perceived payoff of lying, getting the kid to think "I don't want to be punished, and the story says that I won't if I'm honest". Stories like GW and the Cherry tree work instead on identity, trying to build a positive aurea associated with honesty and getting the kid to think: "I want to be like the brave hero of the story, and he is honest" (which is not the same as "I want to be rewarded, and the story says that I will if I am honest"). The superiority of this approach probably lies in the fact that, as well pointed out by some, the incentive approach is often disproven by reality, as the kids can see that in several occasions lying does indeed pay off (and the payoff is usually exactly not being punished for something they have done). So the rational incentive approach is unsuccessful since the kids rationally decide to lie. The identity approach instead is completely emotional, and emotions ignore rational payoffs: the kid just wants to BE like the hero, regardless of prizes and punishments.

I believe Ian. My mom did that to me too, except it was a drug store and Playboy magazine. I was 5 at the time (but already knew what I liked)

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