Monday, July 14, 2014

Research Bulletin: Child Morality Tales and Honest Behavior

A great deal of the interest in whether reading can boost empathic abilities lies in the possibility that greater empathy toward others will result in more prosocial behaviour. Reading may influence behaviour in more direct ways, however, through the explicit depiction of prosocial themes for example. This might be especially true for children’s literature, which often includes the goal of moral education. Dr. Kang Lee (University of Toronto) and his collaborators recently examined whether exposure to a storybook could reduce lying behaviour in children aged 3 to 7 years of age. In their study, a researcher presented a desirable toy then told the child to turn around and not peek at it while she left the room to get a storybook. Hidden cameras recorded whether the child was able to resist temptation and avoid peeking at the toy. When the researcher returned, she read the child one of 4 possible stories: (1) The Tortoise and the Hare [The control story], (2) Pinocchio, (3) The Boy Who Cried Wolf, or (4) George Washington and the Cherry Tree. The latter 3 stories all deal with themes related to lying. After reading the story, the child was asked whether she or he had peeked at the toy while the researcher was out of the room. Based on the hidden camera footage, Dr. Lee and his colleagues knew which children had peeked, and of these children some admitted to peaking while others chose to lie. The researchers were therefore able to assess whether the children who were read a story related to lying were less likely to lie compared to those who were read the control story. Surprisingly, only children who were read the story about George Washington were less likely to lie. Children in this condition were over 3 times less like to lie compared to those who were read the control story (The Tortoise and the Hare). Dr. Lee suspected that the reason why George Washington was effective whereas the other two stories about lying were not might have been because it is made clear in the former case that the character benefits from his honesty. A follow-up study presented a different version of the George Washington story in which the main character is punished for lying and in this case children lied at about the same rates as in the control condition. From these studies it appears that children’s stories can affect moral behaviour, at least in the short-term directly after being exposed to a story and when the story highlights the positive consequences of good behaviour. 

Lee, K., Talwar, V., McCarthy, A., Ross, I., Evans, A., & Arruda, C. (in press). Can classic moral stories promote honesty in children? Psychological Science

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3 comments:

Rebecca said...

These are interesting findings but I'm not convinced by their explanation for why the George Washington story is more effective. That story differs from the others in that it has positive consequences but also in that the behavior modeled is telling the truth. In the other story, and the revised George Washington story, the behavior modeled is lying. Couldn't children just be imitating the behavior modeled in the story, regardless of consequences?

Raymond A. Mar said...

Dear Rebecca,
Thank you for this insightful observation. I forwarded your comment on to the lead author, Dr. Kang Lee, who asked me to post the following response:

This comment appears to raise a clever point. I do not have direct empirical evidence to say one way or another. To address this question, one would need to run a condition in which George Washington only tells a lie without any consequences, positive or negatively, or a condition in which George Washington tells a lie and is praised by his father.
However, such a study would be meaningless because parents are highly unlikely to use such stories to teach children about honesty.

Rebecca said...

I agree! Certainly in terms of practical implications, the studies show that stories with positive models like George Washington should be more effective than stories with negative models. I do think, however, that it is a theoretically important question and may have implications for learning from stories more broadly - do children pay attention to consequences and adjust their behavior in order to seek rewards, or are they paying attention to all behavior and modeling whatever happens in the story regardless of consequences? If the studies are evidence of simple imitation vs. the effect of consequences, it would suggest that stories that aren't trying to teach children a specific lesson may be inadvertently affecting their behavior by modeling behaviors like lying or bullying.

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