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Uncommon Knowledge

Do you swear to tell the truth?

Surprising insights from the social sciences

By Kevin Lewis
October 24, 2010

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Getting kids to tell the truth can be challenging. Most parents likely think that talking with their kids about the morality of lying is the best approach, but new work suggests another way. Researchers asked kids between the ages of 8 and 16 to take a trivia test and told them that they would win $10 if they answered all the questions correctly. The kids were also told that the answers were inside the testing booklet but to not cheat, even though they’d be left in a room alone. What the kids didn’t know was that a couple of the questions had no real answers, and the experiment was being recorded by hidden cameras. After finishing the test, the kids were asked whether they had peeked at the answers. The majority of them had indeed cheated, and the overwhelming majority of those who peeked lied about it when first asked. Asking the kids to think about the morality of lying made little difference in getting the kids to recant. However, if the kids were asked to promise to tell the truth — the same approach used in the legal system — a significant number of the liars recanted.

Evans, A. & Lee, K., “Promising to Tell the Truth Makes 8- to 16-year-olds More Honest,” Behavioral Sciences & the Law (forthcoming).

If you send me to my room, the terrorists have won
Terrorism is bad enough as a security threat, but a team of researchers in Europe has found that thinking about terrorism can affect how we treat our own children. After being shown pictures of terrorism or reading or writing about terrorism, both parents and nonparents endorsed stricter parenting practices. Moreover, this pattern was confirmed with an experiment on actual behavior inside homes. After seeing pictures of terrorism, parents were more impatient, and showed more negative facial expressions, toward their children.

Fischer, P. et al., “Causal Evidence that Terrorism Salience Increases Authoritarian Parenting Practices,” Social Psychology (Fall 2010).

The case for making homework a choice
Motivating kids to learn is at the heart of education. According to a new study, there is a simple but effective way to encourage kids to want to learn on their own: give them a choice. In an experiment, high school students who were allowed to choose their homework assignments (covering the same material) reported more interest, enjoyment, and competence regarding their homework, and they scored higher on a subsequent test of the material.

Patall, E. et al., “The Effectiveness and Relative Importance of Choice in the Classroom,” Journal of Educational Psychology (forthcoming).

The ‘freeze’ response
In the wild, animals are known to freeze if they sense danger lurking nearby. This behavior — including bradycardia (slowed heart rate) — has been demonstrated in humans, too. But, of course, we aren’t usually being hunted in our neighborhoods and workplaces, so researchers wondered if the same effect also occurs for social threats. Women were fitted with biometric sensors and asked to stand on a motion-measuring platform while viewing different facial expressions. When they saw angry faces, the women “froze” — their bodies swayed less, and their heart rates dropped.

Roelofs, K. et al., “Facing Freeze: Social Threat Induces Bodily Freeze in Humans,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.

(WESLEY BEDROSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)