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You Want Students to Tell the Truth? What's In It for Them?

A new study offers insight into when students are most liable to tell those dog-ate-my-homework stories and what might prompt them to reveal the truth about their canine's alleged appetities.

The study, out of McGill University, in Montreal, says that young children are less likely to lie if there's no punishment on the line and when they know that telling the truth will be met with happiness from both the inquisitor and the child.

The researchers found, as they expected, that children's abilities to maintain their lies increase with age. However, they also found that appeals to tell the truth could often bring out the real story if children don't expect punishment.

The researchers used two kinds of appeals to test this: Internal appeals, in which children were told that they would feel better about telling the truth; and external appeals, in which children were told that the adult would be happier for hearing the truth.

According to the findings, when children expected punishment, only the external appeals promoted honesty:


"Because children at a young age are most concerned about pleasing adults, external appeals may have the greatest potency in motivating children to tell the truth," the study says.

But the real nugget in the study concerns children who maintain lies: The authors suggest that appeals to tell the truth may only work before a child has revealed any information; once a child lies, they dig in their heels.

"The results of this study reveal that positive consequences resulting from truth telling should be emphasized and negative consequences for transgressing should be avoided in order to promote honesty in young children," the authors conclude.

The study involved 372 children between 4 and 8 years old; most were from white middle- and upper-income families. The researchers didn't find any significant difference between boys and girls, but suggested further experiments studying the affects of appeals on adolescents.

The study appears in the February 2015 Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

Image courtesy of McGill University.

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