WUOMFM

Teaching sons to lie, and daughters to tell the truth: New research on the roots of dishonesty

Feb 2, 2015

We've mentioned here more than once that boys tend to trail girls in academic settings. Boys are also more likely to get in trouble, and more likely to commit crimes as adults.

Some have argued that the differences in outcomes we see for boys has to do with innate differences between boys and girls. We are told that boys are more active learners, that schools have become feminized in a way that hurts boys. 

But there is also substantial evidence that boys are simply raised with different expectations than girls, and these different expectations may be what's leading to different outcomes. 

Which leads me to a new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. In it, researchers tried to get to the bottom of one of the more well-documented differences between gender groups: That men are more likely to lie than women. 

The study involved an experiment with parents of children aged 3 to 6 years old. Parents were recruited to play a coin-toss game, and they were offered prizes depending on the outcome of the toss. Researchers left the room for the coin tossing, and had no way to verify which way the coins actually landed. The parents were asked to write down the outcome, and hand it to the researchers when they were done.

Parents were given two coins, and each coin had a green side and a blue side. If they reported that both coins turned up green, they'd be given a prize. 

Statistically, we would expect that about 25 % of the games would result in a prize. But that's not how it turned out. Some parents, clearly, lied about the outcome of the toss. And the ways in which the reported outcomes differed from the expected outcomes is where we may learn something about how parents are raising their kids. 

The coin toss game had four possible scenarios. In two of four scenarios, the parents and the children were in the room together while they tossed the coins. In the other two, parents were alone. The other variable had to do with who earned the prize at the end of the game, parent or child. So, the scenarios looked like this: 

  1. Parent and child are together for the game, and the child is eligible for a prize. 
  2. Parent and child are together for the game, and the parent is eligible for a prize. 
  3. The parent plays the game without the child, and the child is eligible for a prize.
  4. The parent plays the game without the child, and the parent is eligible for a prize. 

The expected outcome, again, is that about 25% of the games will result in a prize being awarded.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the scenario that led to the greatest dishonesty was when parents didn't have their kids in the room, and the kids were the ones earning the prize. So, imagine you're a parent, alone in a room tossing the coins, and you know that if you report that both coins came up green, your kid gets a prize. Your kid will never know you lied, and the researcher won't know you lied. In that scenario, when we might expect that 25% of the games would end in a prize, it turned out that 58% of parents reported they'd won. 

No big surprise there. The risk of being caught in the lie was low. And, it's not like these parents were lying just so they could get a reward. They wanted the reward for their kids. 

Where the study gets interesting is in the results for what happened when both the parent and the child were in the room together. In this scenario, the adult is tossing the coin while the child watches. So if the adult lies about the outcome, the kid will know. 

Now, what about those parents who were willing to tell a lie, and willing to do it in front of their kids? Researchers broke down the results based on the gender of the child, and found that parents were much more likely to lie in front of their boys than their girls.

As you might expect, parents were much less likely to lie in front of their kids. Overall, parents reported a winning outcome for the game 33% of the time, when the game was played with children present. That's a little higher than we'd expect, which suggests that some parents still lied about the outcome. But it's nowhere near as much lying as when the kids weren't in the room. 

Now, what about those parents who were willing to tell a lie, and willing to do it in front of their kids? Researchers broke down the results based on the gender of the child and found that parents were much more likely to lie in front of their boys than their girls. 

Keep in mind again that the expected outcome is that about 25% of the games will end in a prize. When parents were alone in the room with their daughters, the actual result was 28%. Statistically, the difference is meaningless. It's possible, in fact, that none of the parents in the study lied while their daughters were present. 

But, if the parent was with a son, it seems likely that parents lied. In 42% of the games when a son was in the room with his parent, the game resulted in a prize. And, overall, parents in any scenario were more likely to lie to benefit their sons than their daughters, as you can see in this chart from the study

Credit From: "On the Origins of Dishonesty: From Parents to Children" / NBER working papers

Before we go too far interpreting these results, we should note the usual caveats: This was a relatively small scale experiment, which has not yet been replicated. 

But if the results hold, they will add to a growing pile of evidence about how gender differences in behavior mount up over time. As this study notes, adult men have been shown in a number of studies to be more likely to lie than women. 

Now it seems we have evidence that this male tendency toward dishonestly isn't innate. It's taught. 

Tags: