Only a social scientist would look at a classic, beloved children's story about the importance of honesty and ask, "I wonder if this is an empirically effective way to reduce lying in children?" But it's a good question, first because instilling honesty in kids is important for obvious reasons, and second because we actually don't know — we tell these stories out of tradition, not a rigorous sense of whether they're doing the work we expect of them. A research team led by Kang Lee of the University of Toronto set out to answer this question — with an interesting study.
In their upcoming paper in Psychological Science, they explain how they used a classic experimental setup in child psychology — leave a kid alone with a toy that he or she is told not to look at while a hidden camera looks on — to test how effective these stories are. After the researcher said they forgot something in their car and asked the kid not to look at the toy, they came back and read them a control story with no anti-lying content, or either "Pinocchio," "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," or "George Washington and the Cherry Tree."
These stories all have pretty strong "lying is bad" messages, and yet only the story of George Washington triggered a statistically significant increase (albeit a modest one) in confessing about having peeked at the toy among the kids who did — the vast majority. The most likely explanation the researchers could come up with for this was that it was because while the other two stories involved the negative consequences of lying (like, say, being eaten alive by a wolf), the tale of honest young George has a positive ending.
So to test whether that was the case, the researchers ran a second experiment in which, like the opposite of a sleazy Hollywood exec, they swapped out the happy ending of George Washington's story for a sad one. As expected, the story was no longer effective in promoting confessions. This runs contrary to most of what we know about how adults can be nudged to change their behavior. Generally speaking, with adults it's much more useful to go negative, because people tend to respond more to the risk of losing something than to the prospect of gaining something. With kids — in this tightly controlled experiment, at least — that wasn't the case. It's partly, the researchers think, because younger kids aren't good at understanding the concept of death (in the crying-wolf story), and partly, as Lee explained in an email to Science of Us, because a story about the positive results of confessing is easy for a kid to immediately connect to the utility of that behavior in real life.
More research is needed, as the familiar refrain goes, but it looks like this distinction between positive and negative storytelling is an important thing for adults to realize — especially since, as the researchers note, parents tend to take a more negative route to instilling moral values in their kids.