A new study suggests parents may want to rethink those little white lies they tell their children.
A UC San Diego experiment finds that children who have been lied to are more likely to lie and cheat themselves.
The study involved 186 children ages 3 to 6, about half of whom were lied to by an experimenter. The adult told them there was a huge bowl of candy in the next room, but then quickly confessed that was a lie to get the children to play the game.
The other half were just asked to play with no mention of candy.
In the game, kids were asked to identify character toys Cookie Monster, Elmo and Winnie the Pooh by their sounds, without seeing them.
So when children heard an “I love cookies” audio clip, they were expected to identify the Cookie Monster. A “tickle me” audio clip played for Elmo, and a “There is a rumbly in my tummy” clip played for Winnie the Pooh.
However, the experimenters then played a deliberately tricky track: Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” which is not associated with any character toy.
The experimenter would leave the room to supposedly take a phone call when the classical music played, telling the children not to peek at the “toy” making the music.
After 90 seconds, the experimenter would return and explicitly ask the kids to tell the truth if they peeked.
Of the 5 to 7-year-old children who had been lied to at the beginning, 80 percent peeked at the toy, and nearly 90 percent of the peekers later lied about it.
About 60 percent of the children who were not lied to looked at the toy, and about 60 percent of those peekers lied later.
For children under 5 years old, the study found an adult’s lie did not make a difference.
Study leaders Leslie Carver and Chelsea Hays said the reason remains an open research question, but they believe the 5 to 7-year-olds may have been simply imitating the behavior of the adult.
Another hypothesis is that they could be making judgments about the importance of honesty to the individual adult.
In their paper, Carver and Hays note that earlier research shows the majority of parents admit to lying to their children, even as they encourage honesty as an important value.
“The actions of parents suggest that they do not believe that the lies they tell their children will impact the child’s own honesty,” their paper said. “The current study casts doubt on that belief.”
Carver said teachers and others who interact with children may need to re-examine what they say to kids.