How A Child's Gender May Affect Parents' Willingness To Bend The Truth
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know, parents often give kids advice. But sometimes, parents have a hard time following that advice themselves. And we're going to explore this in the context of moral behavior. Parents want their kids to grow up honest. But social science research is suggesting that parents are often not very good role models in that regard.
And we're here to talk about this with NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, who is a parent himself. Hi, Shankar.
SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So parents have trouble practicing what they preach?
VEDANTAM: Absolutely right, David. I was talking to Anya Samek. She used to be at the University of Wisconsin when I talked to her. She's now at the University of Southern California. She ran some very interesting experiments involving parents. She had volunteers who are parents come in to play a game. Each volunteer was told to toss two coins.
If both came down the same way, so let's say heads, the volunteer got a prize. Here was the catch. No one monitored how the coins actually landed. So volunteers were free to report that they had succeeded and got the prize. The law of probability predicts only 25 percent of the volunteers should have had two coins come down the same way. But here's Samek.
ANYA SAMEK: We actually find that people cheat a lot. So we expect 25 percent of the time people will win. They actually win 40 percent of the time.
GREENE: So does that mean 15 percent of these parents were just outright lying?
VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. Now, here's the interesting thing. Samek and her co-authors Daniel Houser, John List, Marco Piovesan, and Joe (ph) Winter sometimes had the parents play the game with their kids present. They find that parents cheat less when they're playing the game with their kids. So presumably...
GREENE: That's great.
VEDANTAM: ...They're trying to set a good example for their kids by not cheating. But here's the interesting thing, David. The gender of the child who was with the parent made a big difference. Here's what Samek found.
SAMEK: We actually see that the entire effect of parents acting more honestly when a child is in the room is driven by daughters. So parents seek to model honest behavior to their daughters but not to their sons.
GREENE: What? What is happening there? Why are they trying to be better role models for daughters and not their sons?
VEDANTAM: Well, it's not clear. It's possible that parents believe, and there's actually some research to back this up, that women are held to higher ethical standards than men. I actually did a story about this for All Things Considered some time ago. So it's possible they are offering guidance to their children based on the societal double standard when it comes to men and women.
One really interesting thing that Samek and her colleagues find, David, is that parents are also more likely to cheat when they're alone and when they feel that children are going to be the beneficiaries of their cheating. And there's been other work to back up this idea. When we can tell ourselves that lying and cheating are really forms of love and altruism, it makes it easier for us to practice deception.
GREENE: That's amazing. And how many kids do you have, Shankar?
VEDANTAM: Just one and I'm a wonderful role model.
GREENE: A daughter?
GREENE: Yes, and you're a wonderful role model. And if you had a son, you would be as well.
GREENE: Thanks, Shankar.
VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.
GREENE: That is Shankar Vedantam who regularly comes on the program to talk about social science research. And he explores this topic and other ideas on his podcast, Hidden Brain.
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