Pinocchio, George Washington and the challenge of promoting honesty

Research on three- to seven-year-old children might unlock ways for managers to encourage ethical behavior in the workplace.

An advance online copy of the latest issue of the highly regarded journal Psychological Science recently appeared, and it contains an article that caught my eye: "Can Classic Moral Stories Promote Honesty in Children?" by a team of Canadian psychology professors headed by Kang Lee of the University of Toronto.

The article reports on lab experiments involving three- to seven-year-old children. In the experiment, the children sat at a table with their back to the experimenter, who explained to the kids that she was putting an object (like a rubber duck) on the table and would let the child hear a sound associated with the object (e.g. quacking). The child had to guess what the object was, based on the sound. At one point during the experiment, the researcher stated she had to leave the room briefly because she had forgotten the story book she had promised to read the child after the experiment. She told the children not to turn around to look at the object while she was gone. Then, while she was away, a hidden camera recorded whether the child turned around to look -- which most did.

The stories she then read the children were randomly varied (that's what you do in an experiment). Some heard "The Tortoise and the Hare" -- this was a "control" condition, a story whose moral message was not relevant to the question at hand. Some heard "Pinocchio," in which Pinocchio is punished with a nose growing longer every time he tells a lie. Some heard "George Washington and the Cherry Tree," where Washington told his father that he couldn't lie and had chopped down the tree, after which his father praised him for his honesty and didn't punish him.

After reading the stories, the experimenter, for the Pinocchio story, said the following to the children: "I'm going to ask you a question, and I don't want you to be like Pinocchio. I want you to tell me the truth, OK?" After the participant agreed to tell the experimenter the truth, she asked, "Did you turn around and peek at the toy when I left the room?" For those hearing the George Washington story, the wording was slightly different: the experimenter told the children, "I want you to be like George Washington in the story."

What the experiment then measured was the percentage of children in each of the experimental conditions who told the truth that they had peeked.

The results? Exposing the children to the story of the punished Pinocchio did not increase the percentage of children who told the truth about peeking (this was about 30 percent) compared with the control group. But exposing the children to the George Washington positive role model did -- about half told the truth.

To confirm the findings, the experimenters afterward read a group of children a negative version of the George Washington story, where he tells a lie, his father discovers the lie, and the young Washington is punished by having his axe taken away. When the punishment version of the story was read, the children were as likely to lie as those who heard the Pinocchio story.

I found these results fascinating. I believe they have implications for managers, and also for the way we typically approach "accountability" in government.

It's of course not straightforward to extrapolate from kids to adults, or to extrapolate from lying to other kinds of ethical behavior in the workplace (or workplace performance more generally). But modeling positive role models in the workplace is relatively easy for a manager to do -- it is a workplace performance-improvement technique managers can use without any legal or regulatory changes in their authority. (These are always the kinds of techniques government managers should look to first, given that formal managerial authority is likely to be less in government than in private organizations.)

Equally important is that the example of punishment didn't seem to help. Much of our "accountability" rhetoric -- where "accountability" is as much a nicer way to say "punishment" as it is anything else -- is based on the argument that the fear of punishment will promote good workplace behavior. Maybe not.

NEXT STORY: Learning to innovate like NASA

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