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Social preferences and lying aversion in children

Abstract

While previous research has shown that social preferences develop in childhood, we study whether this development is accompanied by reduced use of deception when lies would harm others, and increased use of deception to benefit others. In a sample of children aged between 7 and 14, we find strong aversion to lying at all ages. Lying is driven mainly by selfish motives and envy. Children with stronger social preferences are less prone to deception, even when lying would benefit others at no monetary cost. Older children lie less than younger children and use self-justification to lie.

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Notes

  1. Experiments with children are becoming more frequent in economics. While initial analysis was focused on the development of social preferences (Harbaugh and Krause 2000; Fehr et al. 2008; Almås et al. 2010; Martinsson et al. 2011; Fehr et al. 2013) and trust (Harbaugh et al. 2003a, b; Sutter and Kocher 2007), recent research also investigates willpower (Bucciol et al. 2010; Bucciol and Piovesan 2011), competitiveness (Gneezy and Rustichini 2004; Sutter and Rützler 2010; Dreber et al. 2011; Andersen et al. 2013), risk and ambiguity attitudes (Harbaugh et al. 2002; Sutter et al. 2013).

  2. Piaget (1965) is among the first psychologists suggesting a theory of moral development.

  3. We think that asking children to use a computer was not an issue. Indeed, according to recent research, an Italian child from age 2 to 11 spends on average 22 h per month on the computer and children from Kindergarten 2 and Grade 1 (mean age: 6 and 7) are generally able to use a mouse to operate educational softwares (Donker and Reitsma 2007). Moreover, the experimenter stood nearby the decision room in case the child needed help. No child has encountered any problem with the computer.

  4. Note that very few children in these towns go to private schools or are home schooled. Thus, we avoid problems of large self-selection and drop-outs in the sample that could arise if running the experiment after class, in holiday centers, or within the family. For ethical reasons, we had to ask both for parents’ consent and children’s willingness to participate in the experiment. We contacted 742 parents, and 686 gave their consent (92 %). The size of the final dataset is reduced to 637 because 2 children voluntary decided not to participate and 42 children were missing the day of the experiment. This acceptance rate is the same as in Fehr et al. (2008). Thus, the self-selection bias should be very limited.

  5. The full set of instructions is available in the on-line Appendix 1. Anonymity of choices was ensured both between participants and with respect to teachers, headmasters and children’s family. In addition to the fact that decisions were made in isolation, children were made aware that there was no possibility to learn about others’ choices. During the experiment we always refer to children by using the number that was randomly assigned to each of them at the beginning of the session. Implementing a double blind procedure was impossible since we wanted to collect also demographic characteristics. We had no question from any child on whether his decisions could be observed or not.

  6. We mentioned several times in the instructions that children were allowed to ask questions both when we read the instructions in public and when we summarized them in front of each of them, individually. We cannot totally exclude confusion but there is no reason to think that it would lead to specific preferences or to certain type of lying behavior, as errors should go in both directions. The great majority of the children did not experience any problem in managing the whole process: Only four children, once entered the room, went back again before starting the task and asked clarification questions. Moreover, we ran the experiment in March and April, so that 7 years old children have already experienced almost 7 months of school and have already developed the basic abilities in mathematics, logic and Italian to be able to successfully understand and complete the whole task.

  7. In the case there was an odd number of children in the class, one child was randomly selected to play the game without a partner (this was not made common information and none of the children asked about it): one of his two decisions was randomly selected for determining the child’s payment.

  8. A picture of the prizes can be found in the on-line Appendix 3. We were not allowed to use monetary prizes but the children were really enthusiastic at the prospect of earning these prizes. With 3 points children could choose between having 1 colored pen, 1 colored double pencil, 5 shokky-bandz or 1 packet of stickers; 5 points could be exchanged for 2 colored pens or 2 double colored pencils or 10 shokky bandz or 2 packets of stickers; 7 points gave the opportunity to choose between 3 colored pens, 3 double colored pencils, 1 packet of shokky bandz (in each packet there are 14 shokky bandz) or 3 packets of stickers. It was also possible to mix the prizes. We implemented a higher exchange rate for payments in the 14 years old group to ensure that the marginal incentives were comparable across ages.

  9. We used this indirect procedure instead of displaying the two allocation options because we thought that it was more neutral. Furthermore, it does not seem to have created any confusion in the children’s mind: they understood the correspondence between the shapes and the allocation options.

  10. Alternatively, we could have made the multi-clicking option common knowledge among children while asking them to report the first shape that appeared on their screen (similarly to Fischbacher and Föllmi-Heusi 2013 in their die experiment, for example). We proceeded differently to avoid possible confusion in children. We actually provide evidence that all children were equally able to use multi-clicking, meaning that its accessibility was not limited by age.

  11. We did not elicit each child’s perception of black and white lies. However, in a psychological study on categorization and evaluation of various types of lies Bussey (1999) found that 8- and 11-year-old children classified nearly all false statements as lies and true statements as truths, regardless of context. When they had to evaluate lies, children from all age groups evaluated more negatively antisocial lies than white lies. This suggests that there is a consensus among children of these different age groups about how to identify and categorize lies.

  12. In the Efficiency treatment 26.47 % of 7–8 years old males and 42.55 % of 11 and 14 years old males prefer (5,7) to (5,5), while the corresponding percentage for females are 15 and 27.66 %.

  13. Our conclusions are confirmed by a set of Probit regressions that are reported in Table A in the on-line Appendix 4.

  14. This percentage is significantly higher than the percentage of children who misreported the observed shape among those who did observe the shape corresponding to their preferred option (3.46 % , N = 11) (p < 0.001, normal approximation two sample test of equality of independent proportions, two-tailed, N = 637, and this is true for each age category. While we acknowledge the possibility that children make errors when taking their decisions, the difference in these percentages suggests that children are more likely to misreport intentionally the observed shape when they do not get their preferred allocation option. One may also hypothesize that some children choose a fair allocation in the first part in order to appear fair in the eyes of the experimenter; in the second part, after observing the shape corresponding to the fair allocation option, they may decide to lie to get the selfish outcome, revealing their true preferences. This hypothesis is not confirmed by our data: 7 of the 11 children who observed their favorite outcome and did not report the true outcome are children who chose a self-regarding allocation in the first part but lied in order to implement the efficiency oriented or the more altruistic option in the second part (i.e. the 5–7 option in the Efficiency treatment).

  15. Table 1 reports the percentage of children who lie after activating several times the random device until observing their favorite outcome and the percentage of children who lie without activating several times the device or after several activations but without observing their favorite outcome. If we consider the children who lie after multi-clicking versus those who lie directly, percentages are slightly different (76.92, 58.33 and 11.11 % of, respectively, the 7–8, 9–10 and 11 and 14 year old children who misreported the observed shape without clicking again) since those who multi-clicked did not necessarily lie: it depends on whether they have observed their preferred shape after multi-clicking or not.

  16. Note that if younger children were not cognitively able to elaborate a conscious deceptive strategy based on multiple clicks, our results would possibly underestimate the youngest children’s willingness to lie and the age difference in the probability to lie.

  17. The most relevant study supporting the fact that older children need more self-justification for lying is Bussey (1999). She examined 4–8–11 years old children’s anticipatory evaluative reactions to lies when evaluating vignettes with characters telling white/black lies or telling the truth (i.e. “How would (the vignette character) feel about (herself/himself) for having said (state lie/truth)?”). Anticipated regulatory control was more advanced for the 8- and 11-year-olds, who expected both self-approval for truth-telling and self-disapproval for lying. Studying children’s need for moral justification, Bandura et al. (1996) define moral disengagement as a process of moral justification where detrimental conduct is made personally and socially acceptable through cognitive reconstrual. In a meta-analysis, Gini et al. (2014) found a positive correlation between such moral disengagement and aggressive behavior among children and youth, with a larger effect for adolescents than for children. However, aggressive behavior may differ from lying.

  18. This evidence also suggests that older children do not lie less because they would be more suspicious in their relationship with the IT technology: if more worried than younger children about being monitored via the technology, they should have lied less even after observing their preferred shape when clicking multiple times.

  19. We thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this explanation.

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Acknowledgments

This research has been supported by a grant from the French National Research Agency (ANR, HEIDI grant 11-EMCO-011 01) and was performed within the framework of the LABEX CORTEX (ANR-11-LABX-0042) of Université de Lyon, within the program “Investissements d’Avenir” (ANR-11-IDEX-007) operated by the French National Research Agency (ANR). We are grateful to D. Cooper and to three reviewers for very inspiring comments. We thank participants at the ESA world meeting in New-York, the EASP conference in Amsterdam, the Toulouse-Lyon BEE workshop in Lyon, the Florence Workshop on Behavioral and Experimental Economics, the workshop on Understanding employees’ dishonesty behavior in the workplace in Dijon, and seminar participants at the University of Paris I for useful comments.

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Correspondence to Marie Claire Villeval.

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Maggian, V., Villeval, M.C. Social preferences and lying aversion in children. Exp Econ 19, 663–685 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10683-015-9459-7

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Keywords

  • Lying aversion
  • Deception
  • Social preferences
  • Children
  • Experiment

JEL classification

  • C91
  • D03
  • D63