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Moral Stories with Happy Endings Promote Honesty in Children

Update Date: Jun 18, 2014 02:55 PM EDT

One of the many characteristics parents teach their young children is to be honest. However, as children age, several other factors can greatly affect their level of honesty. In a new study, researchers examined the effects of certain stories on children. They found that children were more likely to be honest after listening to or reading moral stories that have positive outcomes.

"As parents of young children, we wanted to know how effective the stories actually are in promoting honesty," stated study co-author and researcher Victoria Talwar of McGill University. "Is it 'in one ear, out the other,' or do children listen and take the messages to heart?"

In this study, the research team recruited 268 children between the ages of three and seven. The children were required to play a game where they had to identify different toys based on the sounds the toys made. At one point of the experiment, the adult left the room to grab a book and instructed the children not to peak at the toy. When the experimenter returned, she read one of four stories, which were "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," "Pinocchio," or "George Washington and the Cherry Tree." The experimenter then asked the children whether or not they peaked at the toy.

The researchers found that children who heard the moral story with the positive outcome, which was "George Washington and the Cherry Tree," were more likely to admit to peaking. Children who heard the other three stories were less honest. The researchers stated that they were shocked to find that the neutral story, "The Tortoise and the Hare" had the same effect as the other two stories that linked lying with negative consequences.

"We should not take it for granted that classic moral stories will automatically promote moral behaviors," lead author of the study, Kang Lee from the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronoto, said in the press release. "Our study shows that to promote moral behavior such as honesty, emphasizing the positive outcomes of honesty rather than the negative consequences of dishonesty is the key. This may apply to other moral behaviors as well."

The study, "Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children?" was published in Psychological Science.

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