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Punishing kids for lying doesn’t work, study suggests

Dec. 9, 2014
Courtesy of McGill University
and World Science staff

If you want your child to be truth­ful, it’s best not to threat­en pun­ish­ment if she or he lies, a study sug­gests: child­ren are more likely to tell the truth ei­ther to please an adult or be­cause they be­lieve it’s the right thing to do.

That’s what psy­chol­o­gists found through an ex­pe­ri­ment in­volv­ing 372 chil­dren be­tween the ages of 4 and 8.

“If chil­dren fear po­ten­tial neg­a­tive out­comes for dis­clos­ing in­forma­t­ion, they may be more re­luc­tant to dis­close,” the re­search­ers, led by Vic­to­ria Tal­war of McGill Uni­vers­ity in Can­a­da, wrote in a pa­per for the Feb. 2015 is­sue of the Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Child Psy­chol­o­gy.

The re­search­ers left each child alone in a room for a min­ute with a toy be­hind them on a ta­ble, hav­ing told the child not to peek dur­ing their ab­sence. Ex­pe­ri­menters told some of the chil­dren they would “be in trou­ble” if they lied about that, while for oth­er young­sters the ex­pe­ri­menters men­tioned only pos­i­tive rea­sons for tell­ing the truth.

A hid­den vi­deo cam­era filmed what went on while the child was alone. Up­on re­turn­ing, the ex­pe­ri­menter would ask: “When I was gone, did you turn around and peak at the toy?”

About two-thirds of the chil­dren peeked, though for eve­ry one month in­crease in age, chil­dren be­came slightly less likely to peek, the study found. More­o­ver, about two-thirds of the peek­ers lied about hav­ing looked, and month-by-month as chil­dren aged, they both be­come more likely to tell lies and more ad­ept at main­tain­ing their lies.

The re­search­ers al­so found that the threat of be­ing “in trou­ble” alone led to more than twice the rate of ly­ing as the ap­peals to con­science or good feel­ings alone. Com­bina­t­ions of both types of in­duce­ments led to in-be­tween re­sults.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors al­so ex­pected and found, they said, that while young­er chil­dren were more fo­cused on tell­ing the truth to please the adults, old­er chil­dren had bet­ter in­ter­nal­ized stan­dards of be­hav­ior that made them tell the truth be­cause it was the right thing to do.

“The bot­tom line is that pun­ish­ment does not pro­mote truth-tell­ing,” said Tal­war. “In fact, the threat of pun­ish­ment can have the re­verse ef­fect by re­duc­ing the like­li­hood that chil­dren will tell the truth when encoura­ged to do so.”


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If you want your children to be truthful, it’s best not to threaten punishment if they lie, a study suggests: they’re more likely to tell the truth either to please an adult or because they believe it’s the right thing to do. That’s what psychologists found through an experiment involving 372 children between the ages of 4 and 8. “If children fear potential negative outcomes for disclosing information, they may be more reluctant to disclose,” the researchers, led by Victoria Talwar of McGill University in Canada, wrote in a paper for the Feb. 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. The researchers left each child alone in a room for a minute with a toy behind them on a table, having told the child not to peek during their absence. Experimenters told some of the children they would “be in trouble” if they lied about that, while for other youngsters the experimenters mentioned only more positive reasons for telling the truth. A hidden video camera filmed what went on while the child was alone. Upon returning, the experimenter would ask: “When I was gone, did you turn around and peak at the toy?” About two-thirds of the children peeked, though for every one month increase in age, children became slightly less likely to peek, the study found. Moreover, about two-thirds of the peekers lied about having looked, and month-by-month as children aged, they both become more likely to tell lies and more adept at maintaining their lies. The researchers also found that the threat of being “in trouble” alone led to more than twice the rate of lying as the appeals to conscience or good feelings alone. Combinations of both types of inducements led to in-between results. The investigators also expected and found, they said, that while younger children were more focused on telling the truth to please the adults, older children had better internalized standards of behavior that made them tell the truth because it was the right thing to do. “The bottom line is that punishment does not promote truth-telling,” said Talwar. “In fact, the threat of punishment can have the reverse effect by reducing the likelihood that children will tell the truth when encouraged to do so.”