In Brief

Would you lie to protect a group, even if lying hurt a friend or even yourself? Or would you rather lie to protect yourself or a friend, and hurt a group?

Given the choice, Chinese children said they would lie to help a group, but harm a friend or themselves, according to recent research. In contrast, Canadian children would lie to help themselves or a friend, and harm a group, according to a study in the March Developmental Psychology (Vol. 43, No. 2).

Given that lying is proscribed in most cultures, yet universally practiced, Kang Lee, PhD, professor and director of the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto, says the study examined how a child's cultural background affects the circumstances under which the child sees lying as appropriate.

For the study, researchers recruited children ages 7, 9 and 11 from a mid-size Chinese city and a Canadian city with a predominantly European-Canadian population. In broad terms, Chinese culture traditionally values the group, while Canada's culture emphasizes the individual, Lee says.

In the study, children responded to scenarios involving lies. In one example, a child could pick a friend to represent the class in a spelling bee, even though she knew her friend was a poor speller, thereby favoring either her friend or the class.

The researchers asked the children to evaluate the actions of characters that either lied or told the truth in different situations, such as whether a student should tell on a friend--a star player on the school team--who ducks out of a game to get in some badly needed study time after school.

Interestingly, the researchers found few cross-cultural differences in children's categorizations of truth and lies: Most Canadian and Chinese children categorized lies as lies and truth as truth. But culture does appear to influence children's moral judgments, they found. The children's cultural environments--such as the highly structured, group-oriented Chinese schools versus the more individually oriented Canadian schools--appeared to influence their decisions about the circumstances where they might lie.

The researchers also found an interaction between age and children's moral judgments. As age increased, Chinese children increasingly favored group interests, while Canadian children increasingly favored the individual.

That finding suggests that all children begin with the idea of lying as wrong, but as they get older, become more socialized to their culture's values, Lee says.

In follow-up research, Lee's team is investigating the development of moral values among schoolchildren in multicultural school environments.

--C. Munsey