A moral story that praises a character's honesty is more effective at getting young children to tell the truth than a story that emphasises the negative repercussions of lying, researchers have found.
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 behaviour in children, they said.
"We should not take it for granted that classic moral stories will automatically promote moral behaviours," said lead author Kang Lee of the Dr Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto.
Lee and study co-author Victoria Talwar of McGill University 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'. Afterwards, 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 behaviour 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 he 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 behaviour.
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.
"Our study shows that to promote moral behaviour such as honesty, emphasising the positive outcomes of honesty rather than the negative consequences of dishonesty is the key. This may apply to other moral behaviours as well," said Lee.
The research was published in the journal Psychological Science.