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Research on Honesty and Deceit

In 2008, New York Magazine ran a comprehensive article about research concerning kids and lying. In one study researchers gathered a group of children together and read them a version of The Boy Who Cried Wolf where the little boy is eaten by the wolf because he lies. In a survey of adults taken before the study, most thought the negative consequences in The Boy Who Cried Wolf would lead the children to be more honest in controlled experiments on honesty and deceit. However, after hearing the story, researchers observed that the children continued their usual rate of lying. Researchers then taught the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. In the story George goes to his father and confesses he cut down the tree. His father replies, "Hearing you tell the truth instead of a lie is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees." Researchers found that the story of George Washington and the cherry tree reduced lying by 43 percent. They concluded that the threat of punishment simply teaches children to learn how to lie better. When children learn the worth of honesty, as they did in the story of George Washington, they lie less.

In a study of teenagers regarding degrees of honesty and deceit, researchers found that most parents believe being permissive will encourage openness and honesty from their kids. Parents of teenagers would rather be informed than strict and "in the dark." However, researchers discovered a "no rules" policy simply doesn't work. One researcher noted: "Kids who go wild and get in trouble…have parents who don't set rules or standards. Their parents are loving and accepting no matter what the kids do, but the kids take the lack of rules as a sign their parents don't care—that their parent doesn't really want [the] job of being the parent… Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids." Though some rules result in arguments between parents and teens, only 23 percent of the teenagers surveyed considered these conflicts harmful to their relationship with their parents.

In a final study, adults were asked to disclose the worst lie they ever told. Surprisingly, many adults disclosed minor childhood lies. Researcher Dr. Bella DePaulo of the University of California, Santa Barbara, comments: "I had to reframe my understanding to consider what it must have been like as a child to have told this lie. For young kids, their lie challenged their self-concept that they were a good child and that they did the right thing." Lies told during childhood affected their behavior later on. If they got caught and felt bad, they vowed never to do it again. But if they were good at it and got away with it, they would lie more often into their teens and adulthood."

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