Younger children less tolerant of lying
By Cheryl May
Honesty is definitely the best policy when it comes to communicating with elementary-school-age students. According to a Kansas State University study, elementary-school-age kids don't overlook little white lies as readily as college-age students will.
K-State psychology professor Mark Barnett and graduate students Jeff Bartel, Susan Burns and Fred Sanborn with the assistance of undergraduates Molly White and Neil Christensen, conducted a study to explore potential age-related differences in the perceptions of children who have lied. They compared two groups of students in Manhattan, Kan. Participants included 152 students in Grades 4 through 6 (74 boys and 78 girls) and 144 undergraduates (73 men and 71 women).
The reason why a lie was told affected what others thought about the liar, Barnett said.
"Children's perceptions of peers who have lied are influenced by the liar's motive for telling the lie and by the type of benefit achieved by the lie," Barnett said. "In addition, we included an undergraduate sample in an effort to explore potential age-related differences in the perceptions of children who have lied."
Participants were asked to consider eight different scenarios that included lie situations described by eight different children. They were led to believe that this information had been gathered in prior research on children's self-reported deceptive behaviors.
In each case that was considered, a fictitious child described a situation in which he or she had lied to another child and the reason why he or she had lied in that situation.
Descriptions included the child's motive for telling the lie. Some lies were intended to benefit the child who lied, whereas other lies benefited the child who heard the lie. The selfish and altruistic lies were told either to make someone feel better or to have someone achieve a material gain.
After they read each lie description, participants were asked to rate on a five-point scale the extent to which they agreed with several statements about the child who had told the lie: this child is likable, this child is sneaky, this child should be punished.
Although participants displayed a clear preference for children who had lied to make others feel better, their reactions to other liars were influenced by the type of benefit achieved by the lie.
Self-oriented liars who lied for a material gain were rated more negatively than self-oriented liars who lied to achieve a psychological benefit . In contrast, those who lied to benefit others were rated more positively when the lie achieved a material gain than when it achieved a psychological one.
"Perhaps a child who obtained something tangible from another as a result of a selfish lie was perceived as engaging in a deception that was more costly to the other, and more clearly antisocial, than a child who merely made himself or herself feel better as a result of a selfish lie," Barnett said. "A child who gave something tangible to another as a result of an altruistic lie may have been perceived as engaging in a benevolent act that was more costly to the self, and more clearly prosocial, than a child who merely made the other feel better as a result of an altruistic lie."
The college student participants judged the children who had lied more favorably than did the fourth- through sixth-grade students. Given that undergraduates have had more experience with lies and liars than their younger counterparts, the older participants may have been more willing to accept lying begrudgingly as the common component of social interaction that it has been found to be, Barnett said.