Media Releases

Moral tales with positive outcomes motivate kids to be honest

June 18, 2014

TORONTO, ON — A moral sto­ry that prais­es a char­ac­ter’s hon­esty is more effec­tive at get­ting young chil­dren to tell the truth than a sto­ry that empha­sizes the neg­a­tive reper­cus­sions of lying, accord­ing to research pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a jour­nal of the Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

The find­ings sug­gest that sto­ries such as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “Pinoc­chio” may not be effec­tive cau­tion­ary tales when it comes to inspir­ing hon­est behav­ior in chil­dren.

Sto­ries have long been employed to instill moral and cul­tur­al val­ues in young chil­dren, but there is lit­tle research explor­ing the effec­tive­ness of such sto­ries.

“We should not take it for grant­ed that clas­sic moral sto­ries will auto­mat­i­cal­ly pro­mote moral behav­iors,” says lead author Kang Lee of the Dr. Eric Jack­man Insti­tute of Child Study at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to.

“As par­ents of young chil­dren, we want­ed to know how effec­tive the sto­ries actu­al­ly are in pro­mot­ing hon­esty,” adds study co-author and researcher Vic­to­ria Tal­war of McGill Uni­ver­si­ty. “Is it ‘in one ear, out the oth­er,’ or do chil­dren lis­ten and take the mes­sages to heart?”

To find out, Lee, Tal­war, and col­leagues con­duct­ed an exper­i­ment with 268 chil­dren ages 3 to 7. Each child played a game that required guess­ing the iden­ti­ty of a toy based on the sound it made. In the mid­dle of the game, the exper­i­menter left the room for a minute to grab a book, instruct­ing the child not to peek at a toy that was left on the table. For most chil­dren, this temp­ta­tion was too hard to resist.

When the exper­i­menter returned, she read the child a sto­ry, either “The Tor­toise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Pinoc­chio,” or “George Wash­ing­ton and the Cher­ry Tree.” After­ward, the exper­i­menter asked the child to tell the truth about whether he or she peeked at the toy.

Con­trary to the researchers’ expec­ta­tions, “Pinoc­chio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” – which asso­ciate lying with neg­a­tive con­se­quences, such as pub­lic humil­i­a­tion and even death – were no more effec­tive at pro­mot­ing hon­est behav­ior than a fable unre­lat­ed to hon­esty, in this case “The Tor­toise and the Hare.”

Only the apoc­ryphal tale about a young George Wash­ing­ton seemed to inspire the kids to admit to peek­ing: Chil­dren who heard the tale in which the future first pres­i­dent is praised for con­fess­ing his trans­gres­sion were three times more like­ly to tell the truth than their peers who heard oth­er sto­ries.

An addi­tion­al exper­i­ment indi­cat­ed that the pos­i­tive focus of the George Wash­ing­ton sto­ry was respon­si­ble for kids’ hon­est behav­ior. When the researchers changed the end­ing so that it took a neg­a­tive turn, chil­dren who heard the sto­ry were no longer more like­ly to admit to peek­ing.

Tal­war believes that the orig­i­nal sto­ry about George Wash­ing­ton is effec­tive because it demon­strates “the pos­i­tive con­se­quences of being hon­est by giv­ing the mes­sage of what the desired behav­ior is, as well as demon­strat­ing the behav­ior itself.”

“Our study shows that to pro­mote moral behav­ior such as hon­esty, empha­siz­ing the pos­i­tive out­comes of hon­esty rather than the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of dis­hon­esty is the key,” adds Lee. “This may apply to oth­er moral behav­iors as well.”

Lee, Tal­war, and col­leagues cau­tion that more research is nec­es­sary to deter­mine whether moral sto­ries influ­ence kids’ behav­ior long-term.

Still, they have been quick to take advan­tage of the find­ings. Tal­war reports a shift in her own par­ent­ing prac­tices:

“It real­ly seems to work. I use this now with my child.”


In addi­tion to Lee and Tal­war, co-authors include Anjanie McCarthy and Ilana Ross of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, Angela Evans of Brock Uni­ver­si­ty, and Cindy Arru­da of McGill Uni­ver­si­ty.

This research was sup­port­ed by grants from the Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil of Cana­da to K. Lee and V. Tal­war.

For more infor­ma­tion about this study, please con­tact: Kang Lee at

The arti­cle abstract is avail­able online:

The APS jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence is the high­est ranked empir­i­cal jour­nal in psy­chol­o­gy. For a copy of the arti­cle “Can Clas­sic Moral Sto­ries Pro­mote Hon­esty in Chil­dren?” and access to oth­er Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence research find­ings, please con­tact Anna Miku­lak at 202–293-9300 or