When do children lie to prevent a moral transgression?

    • Topic: Social Interactions

    • Location: Discovery Center

    By preschool, children know that they can lie in some situations. For example, if you receive a gift you don’t like, it is okay to tell a “white lie” and say that you love it. However, lies can also be used strategically to prevent moral harm; for example, one can misdirect a thief who wants to steal jewelry. This study investigates when children will lie to prevent an act of stealing. We are also interested in whether children will lie in this situation in order to prevent harm to the victim or to prevent the act of stealing itself.

    In this study, children (ages 7 – 8 years) will be shown an image of a park and hear one of two stories. A child has hidden his or her toy in the park and another child is looking for the toy. The second child wants to find the toy either in order to steal the toy, or in order to take it to give it back to the owner. In both cases, the owner will return and be sad to find the toy missing. Children will be asked to circle on a map where they would like the child seeking the toy to look. If children want to prevent the theft, they will be more likely to lie (circle the wrong location on the map) in this story compared to the story where there is a positive goal.

    This study will help us understand how children use lies to prevent wrongs and achieve positive outcomes. We believe this often overlooked aspect of moral development can provide insight into how children use sophisticated social reasoning to become cooperative members of society.

    Harvey, T., Davoodi, T., & Blake, P. (2017). Young children will lie to prevent a moral transgression. Journal of experimental child psychology, (in press).

    This work is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by Teresa Harvey and the Social Development and Learning Lab at Boston University.

        » Social Development and Learning Lab at Boston University

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Finding Food

    Find the animal costumes and masks in the Children’s Gallery. Pretend to be hungry chipmunks with your child and search for ‘food’. When your child finds a food item, encourage him or her to hide it for later. Then, tell your child that another hungry chipmunk is going to come to the forest later, and will eat the food if it finds it. Ask your child if s/he thinks it is okay for the other chipmunk to take the food. Does s/he think s/he should tell that other chipmunk where the food is, or does s/he think s/he should lie about the food’s location? Ask your child to reason why s/he made that decision.

    Activities to Try at Home

    White Lies

    People often hide objects from their pets in order to prevent certain behaviors (e.g. chewing on shoes). With your child, choose an animal toy to play with. As you play, tell your child that the animal really likes to eat your child’s socks, and will gobble them all up if it finds them. Then, provide your child with a pair of socks, and observe his or her behavior. What does your child do with the socks? Does your child “hide” the socks from the animal? Ask your child why s/he made the decision s/he did.

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