People Lie. We all know that. Right?
Although most of us will not admit to being one of them. Whether it’s to save ourselves or to lessen the harm to others, one out of every five of our interactions with others contain a lie. For the better part of every day, we are interacting with others. Trust and betrayal are the most important issues to arise between people and the majority of communication most we hear in our culture is criticisms, judgments and lies. Not many of us have learned truthfulness and sincerity, as ways to express ourselves and honor others without alienating them.
As shocking as it sounds, kids lie too.
Researchers found that children begin to lie as young as age 2, usually to conceal transgressions. Because they are not well developed cognitively, their lies are thin and they get caught. Evidence shows that most parents actually favor punishing deception rather than rewarding truthfulness. Kids become increasingly more sophisticated at lying as they get older. By late childhood it is almost impossible for adults to tell if a kid is lying or telling the truth.
Meanwhile, most of us agree that trust is an essential foundation to a life of civility.
Lying erodes trust. We espouse beliefs such as “Honesty is the best policy”, “The truth will set you free”, “Above all, to thine own self be true, then you can’t be false to any man.” But, we aren’t very good at doing what we believe to be the right thing.
In a civilized world, honesty and compassion must go hand in hand.
Honesty is the complement to caring and compassion. Because of how powerful compassion is at creating connection sometimes compassion is given priority over honesty. That’s one of the reasons some people use to justify using what they call Little White Lies. Honesty is important regardless. Without the honesty noone can really be understood.
To help parents teach useful skills, B.F. Skinner developed the concept and child developmental professional have advised parents to try to ignore children’s bad behavior and reward their good behavior. Positive reinforcement amounted to catching kids doing good and paying attention to that. Negative reinforcement is more like intimidation, threats and punishment. In other words, positive actions are more effective than negative ones and better results. For most parents, that seems counter-productive. Many think ignoring is the same as tolerating and it seems like they are failing to do their duty as parents. Most ignore the advise and punish anyway.
To test the effectiveness of this idea, a team of psychological scientists from Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies worked with groups of kids ages 3-7 to see if just a brief, but engaging exposure to moral instruction tempered kids’ natural deceptiveness. They designed an elaborate experiment in which 3- to 7-year-olds were given a fairly irresistible opportunity to cheat in a game, and then were asked whether or not they had cheated. In the experimental group one of three stories; Pinocchio, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and George Washington and the Cherry Tree were read to the kids. Kids in the control group heard The Hare and the Tortoise (which does not deal with honesty or lying) and if any of the three stories was more effective than the others with an honesty test. But before the honesty test, each of the kids heard a reading of one of the three stories. Then they used three morality tales to instruct them about morality in an abstract way and also to shape their moral behavior. As reported both approaches can activate and sustain performance
The scientists predicted that all three of these stories would be effective in promoting honesty in kids.
The results were intriguing—and unexpected. As reported in an article to appear in the journal Psychological Science, both Pinocchio and The Boy Who Cried Wolf failed to moderate the kids’ tendency to lie about their own transgressions. Only George Washington and the Cherry Tree significantly increased the likelihood that the cheating kids would tell on themselves—and this effect was found regardless of age.
So why would these classic tales of lying and consequences not do their job?
Well, the scientists suspected that it might be the nature of the consequences. Both Pinocchio and the shepherd boy experience very negative consequences as a result of their dishonesty—public humiliation in one case, a violent death in the other. Young George’s story, by contrast, emphasizes the virtue of honesty and sends the message that truth telling leads to positive consequences. These results taken together suggest the opposite—that emphasizing the positive value of honesty is more effective than accentuating the negative.
Dr. Rachell Anderson is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, a Professor Emeritus and author. She taught at the University of Illinois and ran a private Clinical in Springfield, Illinois for more than 40 years. She now lives in Tunica, Mississippi and wrires with the Tunica Chapter of the Mississippi Writers Guild. Check out her website at WWW.drrachellanderson.com for more articles and books she has written.