Would you lie for the sake of your team? Perhaps it depends on the culture you come from. Monica Sweet at the University of California and her co-researchers reasoned that children from collectivist cultures, such as China, which emphasise the importance of group ties, might be more inclined to say it’s okay to lie for your team than children from individualistic cultures, such as the US, which place more value on self-interest.
Nearly four hundred children aged seven to eleven, approximately half from a city in Eastern China and half from the US, were presented with fictional scenarios in which a protagonist either lied or told the truth about a transgression by his or her team. The transgression related either to a tug-of-war team cheating by getting extra friends to help or a drawing competition team cheating by getting older children to help.
The surprising finding was that the children from China actually found lying to protect one’s team less acceptable than did the children from the US. ‘This is not to suggest that Chinese children were acting in an individualistic manner,’ the researchers said, ‘but rather that they were acting based on what they believed to be a more salient moral aspect of the situation.’
Moreover, children from both the US and China tended to refer to the protagonist’s concern for him or herself (e.g. ‘she wanted to win’), rather than concern for the team, when asked to explain the protagonist’s motivation to lie or truth-tell. Also, asked to justify their own evaluation of the protagonist’s lies or truth-telling, few Chinese or American children mentioned concern for others (e.g. ‘she did the right thing by standing by her group’). ‘…[I]t is somewhat surprising,’ the researchers said, ‘that more children from China, the collectivist culture, did not mention the impact of the protagonist’s decision on others.’
‘Taken together,’ the researchers concluded, ‘the findings suggest that collectivist ideals do not necessarily equate to a greater focus on the group, and that situational context matters.’ However, they acknowledged that the results might have been different if they’d used a sample of children from rural China as opposed to urban China, where Western influences are on the increase.
Sweet, M., Heyman, G., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2010). Are there limits to collectivism? Culture and children’s reasoning about lying to conceal a group transgression. Infant and Child Development DOI: 10.1002/icd.669