Does Reading ‘Moral’ Stories to Children Promote Honesty?


All over the world, young children are exposed to classic fairy tales, myths and other stories. Most kids love hearing the stories, but in addition to being a fun activity, story-telling is also thought of as an educational tool which can promote moral reasoning and honesty. Conventional wisdom suggests that hearing fairy tales in which dishonest protagonists are punished might help convince the listeners to become truth-tellers. There is surprisingly little scientific data to back up this conventional wisdom, so a team of researchers in Canada from the University of Toronto, McGill University and Brock University studied how narrating classic ‘moral’ stories to young children affected their willingness to tell the truth. It turns out that the purported honesty-promoting effect of certain myths is somewhat of a myth.


The results of the study conducted by Dr. Kang Lee and colleagues were recently published in the article “Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children?” (published online on June 13, 2014 in Psychological Science). The researchers recruited children (ages 3 to 7) from two Metropolitan areas in Canada for their study. In the first experiment (268 children), individual children were asked to play a guessing game in which they were seated with their back toward one side of the table and could not see what was being placed on the table. The experimenter was seated on the opposite side of the table and placed a toy on the table, which gave a sound upon pressing a button which elicited a sound that was commonly associated with the toy. For example, pressing a button on a toy duck would make the duck quack. The child was then asked to guess the nature of the toy merely based on hearing the sound, without being allowed to turn around and actually see the toy. After some initial questions, the experimenter told the child that she had forgotten a story-book. She placed a new toy on the table, and asked the child not to turn around while she was getting the story-book.

After leaving the room, the experimenter could not see or hear the child and was therefore blind to whether or not the child had turned around and peeked at the new toy. However, another experimenter was video-recording the child with hidden cameras. One minute later, the experimenter re-entered the room, told the child to keep facing away from the table and quickly covered the target toy with a cloth. The experimenter then asked the child to turn around and read a story to the child. Children were assigned to hear either “The Tortoise and the Hare” (the control story without a clear ‘moral’ lesson about honesty/dishonesty) or one of the following experimental stories:

1)     “Pinocchio” – the story in which the puppet-boy’s nose grows longer each time he tells a lie

2)     “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” – the story of a little shepherd boy who often lies about being attacked by a wolf. When the wolf really appears, no one believes the boy, and he as well as his sheep are devoured by the wolf

3)     “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” – the famous anecdote of the six-year-old George Washington (which is also thought to be more of a myth than an actual historical event) who cut down a cherry tree with a hatchet but truthfully admitted to doing so when he questioned by his father. The father did not punish him, but praised him for his honesty.

All stories were about the same length, and the experimenter made sure that the child had understood the basic elements of the chosen story (each child only heard one story).

If the child had heard “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” or “Pinocchio,” the experimenter said to the child, “I’m going to ask you a question, and I don’t want you to be like the boy who cried wolf. I want you to tell me the truth, OK?” or “I’m going to ask you a question, and I don’t want you to be like Pinocchio. I want you to tell me the truth, OK?” After the participant agreed to tell the truth, she asked, “Did you turn around and peek at the toy when I left the room?”


A similar procedure was repeated for children who heard “George Washington and the Cherry Tree,” but here the experimenter told the children, “I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to be like George Washington in the story. I want you to tell me the truth, OK? Did you turn around and peek at the toy when I left the room?”

Children who heard “The Tortoise and the Hare” were asked, “I am going to ask you a question, and I want you to tell me the truth, OK? Did you turn around and peek at the toy when I left the room?”

When the researchers later analyzed the hidden camera video recordings, they found that the vast majority of children had indeed turned around during the brief moment while the experimenter was gone. Age was the major predictor of whether or not the child would sneak a peek at the toy. Among 3-year olds, 88% of the kids turned around and looked at the toy, whereas only 68% of 7-year olds turned around.

Anyone who has kids or has worked with little kids should not be surprised by these findings. Little children are extremely curious and it is rather hard to resist the temptation of peeking. The more interesting questions are whether or not the “peekers” confessed to their cheating and whether hearing the ‘moral’ stories made a difference. The surprising finding was that only about a third of the peekers who heard the “The Tortoise and the Hare” story, the Pinocchio story and the “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” story confessed that they had cheated. Apparently, hearing about the dire consequences of lying such as having a wolf feast on a lying boy did not increase the likelihood of telling the truth. However, the kids who had heard the George Washington story had a significantly higher rate of truth-telling: Roughly half of the kids admitted to peeking at the toy while the experimenter had left the room!

The researchers wondered about why the George Washington story had been so effective. One possible explanation was that the story had a positive outcome with George Washington being rewarded for truth-telling whereas the other two stories (Pinocchio and Wolf) focused on the bad outcomes of lying. So the researchers decided to conduct a second experiment in which they modified the George Washington story. In this “negative” version, George Washington lies to his father by telling him that he did not cut down the cherry tree, but his father later on finds out the truth. As punishment for his lying, George’s father takes away George’s ax and tells him that he is very disappointed in him because he told a lie.

The children in this second experiment were exposed to the same set-up and scoring as in the first experiment, but the results are quite remarkable: The truth-telling rate of children hearing the negative version of the George Washington dropped to below 30%, very similar to the control story, the Pinocchio story or the wolf story. This suggests that the truth-promoting power of the classic George Washington story may indeed be due to the fact that he is rewarded or praised for his honesty.

This research reveals an important mechanism of how ‘moral’ stories can promote truth-telling, and could be of great value for parents of teachers. Stories may promote honesty if they offer positive role models (“be like George Washington”) and emphasize the benefits of honesty instead of focusing on the dire consequences of dishonesty. Instead of just assuming that all ‘moral’ stories promote moral values, one has to carefully distinguish between stories which use positive versus negative role models. This study only investigated the impact of story-telling on honesty, but it is not clear whether similar effects would also be seen in stories that are thought to promote other moral values such as compassion or courage. The study was remarkably well-designed with appropriate control groups and hopefully it will serve as an inspiration for future research into the impact of story-telling on children.

Lee K, Talwar V, McCarthy A, Ross I, Evans A, & Arruda C (2014). Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children? Psychological science PMID: 24928424


Is Kindness Key to Happiness and Acceptance for Children?

The study “Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being” published by Layous and colleagues in the journal PLOS One on December 26, 2012 was cited by multiple websites as proof of how important it is to teach children to be kind. NPR commented on the study in the blog post “Random Acts Of Kindness Can Make Kids More Popular“, and the study was also discussed in ScienceDaily in “Kindness Key to Happiness and Acceptance for Children“, Fox News in “No bullies: Kind kids are most popular” and the Huffington Post in “Kind Kids Are Happier And More Popular (STUDY)“.

According to most of these news reports, the design of the study was rather straightforward. Schoolchildren ages 9 to 11 in a Vancouver school district were randomly assigned to two groups for a four week intervention: Half of the children were asked to perform kind acts, while the other half were asked to keep track of pleasant places they visited. Happiness and acceptance by their peers was assessed at the beginning and the end of the four week intervention period. The children were allowed to choose the “acts of kindness” or the “pleasant places”. The “acts of kindness” group chose acts such as sharing their lunch or giving their mothers a hug. The “pleasant places” group chose to visit places such as the playground or a grandparent’s house.

At the end of the four week intervention, both groups of children showed increased signs of happiness, but the news reports differed in terms of the impact of the intervention on the acceptance of the children.


The NPR blog reported:

… the children who performed acts of kindness were much more likely to be accepting of their peers, naming more classmates as children they’d like to spend time with.

This would mean that the children performing the “acts of kindness” were the ones that became more accepting of others.


The conclusion in the Huffington Post was quite different:


The students were asked to report how happy they were and identify classmates they would like to work with in school activities. After four weeks, both groups said they were happier, but the kids who had performed acts of kindness reported experiencing greater acceptance from their peers  –  they were chosen most often by other students as children the other students wanted to work with.

The Huffington Post interpretation (a re-post from Livescience) was that the children performing the “acts of kindness” became more accepted by others, i.e. more popular.


Which of the two interpretations was the correct one? Furthermore, how significant were the improvements in happiness and acceptance?


I decided to read the original PLOS One paper and I was quite surprised by what I found:

The manuscript (in its published form, as of December 27, 2012) had no figures and no tables in the “Results” section. The entire “Results” section consisted of just two short paragraphs. The first paragraph described the affect and happiness scores:


Consistent with previous research, overall, students in both the kindness and whereabouts groups showed significant increases in positive affect (γ00 = 0.15, S.E. = 0.04, t(17) = 3.66, p<.001) and marginally significant increases in life satisfaction (γ00 = 0.09, S.E. = 0.05, t(17) = 1.73, p = .08) and happiness (γ00 = 0.11, S.E. = 0.08, t(17) = 1.50, p = .13). No significant differences were detected between the kindness and whereabouts groups on any of these variables (all ps>.18). Results of t-tests mirrored these analyses, with both groups independently demonstrating increases in positive affect, happiness, and life satisfaction (all ts>1.67, all ps<.10).


There are no actual values given, so it is difficult to know how big the changes are. If a starting score is 15, then a change of 1.5 is only a 10% change. On the other hand, if the starting score is 3, then a change of 1.5 represents a 50% change. The Methods section of the paper also does not describe the statistics employed to analyze the data. Just relying on arbitrary p-value thresholds is problematic, but if one were to use the infamous p-value threshold of 0.05 for significance, one can assume that there was a significant change in the affect or mood of children (p-value <0.001), a marginally significant trend of increased life satisfaction (p-value of 0.08) and no really significant change in happiness (p-value of 0.13).

It is surprising that the authors do not show the actual scores for each of the two groups. After all, one of the goals of the study was to test whether performing “acts of kindness” has a bigger impact on happiness and acceptance than the visiting “pleasant places” (“whereabouts” group). There is a generic statement “ No significant differences were detected between the kindness and whereabouts groups on any of these variables (all ps>.18).”, but what were the actual happiness and satisfaction scores for each of the groups? The next sentence is also cryptic: “Results of t-tests mirrored these analyses, with both groups independently demonstrating increases in positive affect, happiness, and life satisfaction (all ts>1.67, all ps<.10).” Does this mean that p<0.1 was the threshold of significance? Do these p-values refer to the post-intervention versus pre-intervention analysis for each tested variable in each of the two groups? If yes, why not show the actual data for both groups?


The second (and final) paragraph of the Results section described acceptance of the children by their peers. Children were asked who they would like to “would like to be in school activities [i.e., spend time] with’’:


All students increased in the raw number of peer nominations they received from classmates (γ00 = 0.68, S.E. = 0.27, t(17) = 2.37, p = .02), but those who performed kind acts (M = +1.57; SD = 1.90) increased significantly more than those who visited places (M = +0.71; SD = 2.17), γ01 = 0.83, S.E. = 0.39, t(17) = 2.10, p = .05, gaining an average of 1.5 friends. The model excluded a nonsignificant term controlling for classroom size (p = .12), which did not affect the significance of the kindness term. The effects of changes in life satisfaction, happiness, and positive affect on peer acceptance were tested in subsequent models and all found to be nonsignificant (all ps>.54). When controlling for changes in well-being, the effect of the kindness condition on peer acceptance remained significant. Hence, changes in well-being did not predict changes in peer acceptance, and the effect of performing acts of kindness on peer acceptance was over and above the effect of changes in well-being.


This is again just a summary of the data, and not the actual data itself. Going to “pleasant places” increased the average number of “friends” (I am not sure I would use “friend” to describe someone who nominates me as a potential partner in a school activity) by 0.71, performing “acts of kindness” increased the average number of friends by 1.57. It did answer the question that was raised by the conflicting news reports. According to the presented data, the “acts of kindness” kids were more accepted by others and there was no data on whether they also became more accepting of others. I then looked at the Methods section to understand the statistics and models used for the analysis and found that there were no details included in the paper. The Methods section just ended with the following sentences:


Pre-post changes in self-reports and peer nominations were analyzed using multilevel modeling to account for students’ nesting within classrooms. No baseline condition differences were found on any outcome variables. Further details about method and results are available from the first author.


Based on reviewing the actual paper, I am quite surprised that PLOS One accepted it for publication. There are minimal data presented in the paper, no actual baseline scores regarding peer acceptance or happiness, incomplete methods and the rather grand title of “Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being” considering the marginally significant data. One is left with many unanswered questions:

1) What if kids had not been asked to perform additional “acts of kindness” or additional visits to “pleasant places” and had instead merely logged these positive activities that they usually performed as part of their routine? This would have been a very important control group.

2) Why did the authors only show brief summaries of the analyses and omit to show all of the actual affect, happiness, satisfaction and peer acceptance data?

3) Did the kids in both groups also become more accepting of their peers?


It is quite remarkable that going to places one likes, such as a shopping mall is just as effective pro-social behavior (performing “acts of kindness”) in terms of improving happiness and well-being. The visits to pleasant places also helped gain peer acceptance, just not quite as much as performing acts of kindness. However, the somewhat selfish sounding headline “Hanging out at the mall makes kids happier and a bit more popular” is not as attractive as the warm and fuzzy headline “Random acts of kindness can make kids more popular“. This may be the reason why the “prosocial” or “kindness” aspect of this study was emphasized so strongly by the news media.


In summary, the limited data in this published paper suggests that children who are asked to intentionally hang out at places they like and keep track of these for four weeks seem to become happier, similar to kids who make an effort to perform additional acts of kindness. Both groups of children gain acceptance by their peers, but the children who perform acts of kindness fare slightly better. There are no clear descriptions of the statistical methods, no actual scores for the two groups (only the changes in scores are shown) and important control groups (such as children who keep track of their positive activities, without increasing them) are missing. Therefore, definitive conclusions cannot be drawn from these limited data. Unfortunately, none of the above-mentioned news reports highlighted the weaknesses, and instead jumped on the bandwagon of interpreting this study as scientific evidence for the importance of kindness. Some of the titles of the news reports even made references to bullying, even though bullying was not at all assessed in the study.

This does not mean that we should discourage our children from being kind. On the contrary, there are many moral reasons to encourage our children to be kind, and there is no need for a scientific justification for kindness. However, if one does invoke science as a reason for kindness, it should be based on scientifically rigorous and comprehensive data.