For parents looking to teach their children a lesson about honesty, a new study suggests "George Washington and the Cherry Tree" is a more useful morality tale than "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."
Stories touting the positive outcomes of telling the truth promoted more honesty in kids than stories that emphasize the grave consequences of lying, researchers found.
"We were very surprised by our results, because we thought the 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' and 'Pinocchio' should do better based on the adult findings that negative messaging helps change adult behaviors," Kang Lee, the study's lead researcher from the University of Toronto, told Live Science in an email. [10 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]
The new research suggests the opposite is true for children.
Lee and colleagues recruited 268 kids between ages 3 and 7. The researchers told each child one of four stories: "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," "Pinocchio," "George Washington and the Cherry Tree," or, a control, the "The Tortoise and the Hare."
"Pinocchio" and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" are actually dark tales: Pinocchio's nose grows every time he tells a lie, and the boy who cried wolf gets gobbled up by the wolf at the end of the tale after lying too many times. In contrast, George Washington is rewarded for coming clean about chopping down a cherry tree.
To test how honest the kids were after hearing one of the four stories, the researchers used a classic behavioral study game, in which the kids had to guess what kind of toy was hidden from sight based only on the noise it made. During the game, the children were left by themselves for one minute and told not to peek at the toy — such a tempting situation that most kids were expected to cheat.
The kids in this study were seated with their backs to a table where the toy was sitting. The first few times the researcher used a toy like a duck or a cat that made a characteristic quacking or meowing sound, respectively. Then, the scientist used a toy that only played a generic melody that the kids could not easily identify. The researcher left the room to go get one of the four storybooks and told each child not to peek at the toy. The kids were monitored with a hidden camera.
After returning to the room, the researcher read the story and asked, "What do you think? Is it OK to tell lies or not OK to tell lies?" Then the researcher asked each kid if they peeked at the toy or not.
About 74 percent of the kids peeked at the toy when the researcher left the room. Researchers expected that the kids who heard "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" would be the most honest, because of the fatal consequences lying has in the story. However, children who heard the George Washington story were three times more likely to tell the truth about peeking compared with children who heard the control story. Children who heard "Pinnochio" or "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" were just as likely to lie as children who heard the control story.
To figure out why, the researchers created a new version of the George Washington story in which George lies to his father about chopping down the cherry tree. His father later finds out the truth and tells George that he is very disappointed in him for lying. Children who heard the original, positive-outcome story were three times more likely to tell the truth than the children who heard the new, negative-outcome version.
Lee said the findings suggest that parents should talk to their kids about the positive outcomes of telling the truth, rather than the negative outcomes of lying.
Details of the experiment were published June 13 in the journal Psychological Science.