When we lie to children, are we teaching them to be dishonest?

Cookie Monster – one of
the characters featured
in this research.

Most parents lie to their children, often as a way to control their behaviour. A new study asks whether lying to the little ones increases the likelihood that they too will lie. The authors, Chelsea Hays and Leslie Carver, say theirs is the first attempt to investigate this possibility.

Nearly two hundred children aged three to seven were each put through a similar scenario, one at a time. First, they were invited to go through to the next room. For half of them, the experimenter lied and said there was a huge bowl of sweets in that room. On arrival, the experimenter admitted she’d lied, that she just wanted the child to come play with them. For the other half of the children, the experimenter merely said there was a fun game to play in the next room, which was true.

The game, played by all the children, involved them sitting with their backs to the experimenter, listening to the sound effects of famous toy characters (Elmo, Cookie Monster, Winnie The Pooh), guessing each character’s identity, and then turning around to see if they’d got it right. After the first two toys, the experimenter said she had to leave the room briefly, and that the child mustn’t turn around to peek at the next toy. During this time, the children were left alone for 90 seconds and they were filmed to see if they peeked. Most of them did, and the younger children peeked more than the older children.

On her return, the experimenter asked each child if they’d sneaked a peek at the toy. The take-home result is that the children aged 5 to 7 were more likely to lie about peeking if the experimenter had earlier lied to them (approximately 88 per cent of the lied-to older children lied, compared with 65 per cent of those who weren’t lied to). Rates of lying were lower among the younger children (around 50 per cent) and were not associated with whether the experimenter had lied to them earlier, possibly because younger children have yet to develop the skills needed to understand that they’d be lied to.

“The actions of parents suggest that they do not believe that the lies they tell their children will impact the child’s own honesty,” the researchers said. “The current study casts doubt on that belief. This study suggests, rather, that [school age] children may use the actions of adults, as a model, to determine whether they will engage in honest or dishonest behaviours.” They added: “Perhaps adults need to re-evaluate the way that they interact and talk with children.”

One limitation of the study, acknowledged by the researchers, is that the lying to the children was done by a stranger, not by their parents. It’s possible that children might respond differently to parental lies – perhaps making it more or less likely that they will follow suit.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Hays, C., & Carver, L. (2014). Follow the liar: the effects of adult lies on children’s honesty Developmental Science, 17 (6), 977-983 DOI: 10.1111/desc.12171

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.