Friday, February 24, 2017

Examining Truth

Truth is a great flirt. ~Franz Liszt 
There is no truth. There is only perception. 
~Gustave Flaubert

We hear the word, "truth" bandied about these days in politics and the media. Quotations abound with philosophies about what truth means. Few provide details beyond the use of abstractions. 

What does truth look and sound like? How does one show the truth?  What does it mean to be true to oneself?

Is there a difference between truth and reality?

Will stories about truth help us connect to its virtues?

Studies at the University of Toronto involved teaching children to tell the truth. They found promoting the virtues of honesty develop more effective results than a focus on punishing the consequences of deception.

Psychologist Kang Lee’s study posed the question: Do classic, morally instructive tales of honesty, so often told by parents and teachers, actually work? 

After listening to the story of how a young George Washington admitted to chopping down a cherry tree saying, “I cannot tell a lie,” children were significantly less likely to lie about their own dishonesty than if they heard the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” or “Pinocchio.” 

Lee said, "I thought stories such as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" or "Pinocchio" would have far more impact, because they're so threatening and negative, and kids must be afraid of the consequences."  

He discovered that unlike fairy tales with punishments, children appreciated George Washington for telling the truth.

Lee and researchers created a study that tempted children to lie. Children sat with their backs to an unseen toy on a table while a researcher played a sound associated with the toy like a quacking rubber duck or a barking plastic dog. 

They asked each child to guess its identity. If they guessed correctly, they won a prize.

After a few rounds, the researcher put a different toy on the table and asked the child not to peek at it. Then the researcher left the room. 

A few minutes later the researcher returned and read aloud one of four classic children’s stories and asked the child whether he or she peeked. A hidden camera in the wall had recorded their activities. The researchers knew if they lied.

Lee’s group ran the experiment with 268 Canadian children that included boys and girls, three to seven years old. Each heard one story. “The Tortoise and the Hare” which does not relate to honesty. It set a baseline for comparison. Children who heard it told the truth about peeking 30 percent of the time. That number barely changed if they’d heard “Pinocchio,” and rose to about 35 percent after “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” 

When the children heard the story about George Washington and the cherry tree, 48 percent told the truth. Lee suspected the jump might be linked to the story’s positive emphasis. Washington’s tale relates to virtue rewarded rather than misbehavior punished. The tale works in the study even though historians have disputed the story's "truth."

"Positive messaging is a better way of promoting behaviors," said Lee. "You're telling kids what is expected and what they need to do. Instead of focusing on consequences, you're focusing on the act itself."

Psychologist Tom Lyon of the University of Southern California, also studies truth-telling in children. He said, “It would be wonderful if we can encourage children’s honesty better through carrots than sticks.” He observed a study involving a negatively focused version of the George Washington tale of chopping down the cherry tree. Instead of saying he’d rather have an honest son than 1,000 cherry trees, his father takes away his ax and says how disappointed he is.

When children heard that story, the number of truth-tellers fell back to the baseline level of 30 percent. The story lost its effectiveness, which suggested that the story’s power resides in its positive message.

Lyon said the findings surprised him, as some research suggests that children think less about honesty’s positive consequences than lying’s harms. Lee noted that research has also found evidence of children responding better to positive messages. The results also fit with earlier findings that asking children to promise honesty is more effective than explaining why it’s so terrible to lie. 

Questions about truth will continue to intrigue.

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