And now for something completely different

I hope this isn’t a gauche error on my part, but I’m just going to take a break from our stand-up-philosopher act and draw our attention to some recent science reporting. It’s not often I see actual science on rhetoric and virtue.

A clever experiment by researchers at the University of Toronto and Brock University (which sounds like an excellent school) read four different stories to children, and then tested them for honesty. Here’s what they found-

The surprising finding was that only about a third of the peekers who heard the “The Tortoise and the Hare” story, the Pinocchio story and the “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” story confessed that they had cheated. Apparently, hearing about the dire consequences of lying such as having a wolf feast on a lying boy did not increase the likelihood of telling the truth. However, the kids who had heard the George Washington story had a significantly higher rate of truth-telling: Roughly half of the kids admitted to peeking at the toy while the experimenter had left the room!

A follow-up experiment with multiple versions of the George Washington story seems to confirm the finding that stories of punishment do not inspire changes in behavior, while stories about a virtuous role model (who is rewarded for his virtue) has a strongly positive impact on behavior. 

This seems to be useful and heartening. It’s heartening to know that rhetoric isn’t wasted effort, and that people can be inspired to improve. And it’s useful to know which types of rhetoric are more likely to produce an effect.

4 thoughts on “And now for something completely different

  1. spivonomist

    I started using aspirational conditioning on my daughter “good girls don’t fuss; good girls pick up their toys” &c. It seems to make a genuine difference. She’s even taken to listing all the things good girls do from time to time with no prompting from me or mrs. spivonomist.

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