Research Briefs, Science & Technology

Cracking the honesty code: Key techniques for encouraging honesty in children

Honesty is a crucial foundation for relationships and cooperation. In early childhood education, helping children recognize the importance of honesty is fundamental. 

Victoria Talwar, professor in McGill’s Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology and lab director of the Talwar Child Development Research Lab, recently published a paper in Developmental Psychology that investigates the effects of honesty promotion techniques on children of different ages. 

“As [children’s] cognitive abilities mature, they develop [a] more nuanced understanding of others’ intentions and beliefs, they also understand the importance of truth-telling and the impact of lying on relationships,” Talwar wrote in an email to The Tribune.

This study examined four honesty promotion techniques, including reading moral stories about honesty, increasing self-awareness, promising to tell the truth, and informing children about the positive effects of being honest. These techniques were chosen because they promote truth-telling by enhancing a child’s self-awareness and social obligation to honesty. 

Among different techniques, promising to tell the truth emerges as the most effective and the most studied approach. By instilling a sense of obligation or commitment, this method reinforces children’s dedication to honesty. 

The authors organized this research into two consecutive studies. The first study assessed techniques that emphasize a child’s personal commitment to honesty, including promising to tell the truth and cultivating self-awareness. 

Conversely, the second study investigated the influence of more social mechanisms on a child’s willingness to tell the truth. These mechanisms are modelling honesty and observing positive consequences of honesty.

To promote preschool-aged children’s honesty, increasing self-awareness and a combination of modelling honesty and positive consequences were equally effective. In seven- to eight-year-old children, promising to tell the truth, modelling honesty, and positive consequences of honesty were all successful in promoting honesty. Notably, a combination of modelling truth-telling and observing positive consequences of being honest effectively reduced lie-telling across all ages. 

Furthermore, Study One suggests that age may influence how effective the honesty promotion techniques are. Self-awareness, stimulated in the study by having the children look into a mirror, dramatically decreased lie-telling in children under the age of four. 

“It may be that for younger children seeing themselves in the mirror reminded them of the adults’ expectations [for] their honesty and heightened their awareness of what they were doing,” Talwar explained. 

Additionally, the study observed that seven- to eight-year-old children were significantly less likely to lie in any cohort implementing the promise technique. Telling the truth after promising promotes a child’s adherence to their commitments by allowing them to reflect on their reliability and trustworthiness. 

Prior research has also shown that asking a child of five years or older to promise to tell the truth reduced lie-telling by 20 to 30 per cent. However, preschool-aged children tend to have lower success rates despite implementing the same technique, potentially because they do not fully understand what a “promise” is. 

The findings of Study Two demonstrate that irrespective of age, children were significantly less likely to lie after using a combination of modelling honesty and positive consequences. Moral stories that show not only how to tell the truth but also the positive consequences of honesty are important to increase truth-telling in young children. 

“We notice and condemn lying, we often fail to notice and praise truth-telling,” Talwar wrote. “We often tell stories and give messages about lying, about what not to do. We also need to provide stories and messages about what to do.”

These findings show that a multifaceted approach is necessary to encourage honesty among children. Combining external and internal motivations of modelling truth-telling and focusing on the positive rather than the negative consequences seem to be the most effective strategy for encouraging honesty in children. 

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