I Brushed My Teeth

By Chris Thurber

People lie. It’s in our nature. We tell children never to lie, but of course they do. And as soon as they are old enough, they counter with the scenario of the sociopath: the one who shows up at your door in a murderous rage, threatens to kill your parents, and then asks whether they are home? Obviously, you lie to protect them.

Allowing for the sociopath’s illogical polite streak, this classic hypothetical suggests it is OK to lie, at least in the case of protecting innocent people. It also turns out that nearly every person lies a little in order to look better, as long as he or she won’t be caught.

Why We Lie
In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, author Dan Ariely describes a study in which two groups of people were asked to solve the same batch of challenging math problems, using paper and a pencil. Group A completed the problems and was then asked to hand the answer sheets to an experimenter to score. This group answered 4 out of 20 problems correctly, on average. Group B completed the same problems and was then asked to self-score their sheets using an answer key. This group was then instructed to shred their sheets and verbally report their score to an experimenter.

Curiously, Group B’s self-reported average was 6 out of 20 problems correct. According to Ariely, people typically boost self-reports of their performance by about 10 percent when they have an opportunity to be deceitful. We like to make ourselves look better—realistically, but not outrageously so—when we feel there is absolutely no possibility that anyone could find out. One wonders not only about the estimated length of the fish that got away, but about other estimated self-reported lengths: standardized test scores and race times and interview results and so forth. Heck, some people even lie about lying, claiming they never do it. Right.

Help For Staff
The implications for camp counselors and other youth leaders are fascinating. The question is no longer whether some kids lie. It seems that almost all kids—and adults—bend the truth under certain circumstances. The enlightened question is, How should youth leaders handle transgressions and misbehaviors, knowing that nearly all people lie some of the time in order to make themselves look better?

One answer is the Nuclear Treaty approach: trust but verify. We want to endow young people with responsibility, but naturally we need to check up on them and validate their word. Cleaning up is a perfect camp example. You might ask a group of youngsters to clean up the cabin or the craft table, and you’ll return in 20 minutes to see how they’ve done. Tasks like these have the obvious benefit of giving campers the opportunity to cooperate without direct adult scrutiny. They also have the subtle benefit of giving them a chance to be truthful. When you ask, “How did it go?” and the kids know you’ll be inspecting their job momentarily, you’re likely to get a truthful answer.

But have we really taught campers anything in the “trust but verify” condition? The research suggests that most people don’t lie to look good unless they are certain they’ll get away with it. It’s unlikely, therefore, that campers are going to say, “The cabin is spotless” or “The craft supplies are all put away” when they know someone will be inspecting their work. So if kids are truthful under these conditions, all we’ve done is confirm the research findings. Yes, they do benefit from having a chance to cooperate. And yes, giving them jobs will enhance their sense of pride and agency. That’s all good. Yet it hasn’t taught much about the value of telling the truth.

An alternate solution is the Surprise Party approach. Give campers responsible jobs and opportunities to cooperate, but verify their work at random. Here it becomes even more important to make wise choices about what tasks we give our campers to complete on their own. And, of course, we’re always close enough to step in should a problem arise. But surprising kids with “spot inspections” and random quality checks keeps them guessing and, in so doing, keeps them honest. Uncertainty about being discovered destabilizes the tendency to lie.

More Reasons To Lie
Another way to enhance honesty is to give campers time to confess. Far better than interrogating them and attempting to force a confession (which can lead to lying in order to save face) is the Tick Tock approach. There’s good research to support giving people a little time to think about their answer before they open their mouths.

In the article “Honesty Requires Time (and Lack of Justification),” authors Shaul Shalvi, Ori Eldar, and Yoella Bereby-Meyer from the University of Amsterdam describe their conjuring design. Participants roll dice three times behind a shield that prevents the experimenter from seeing the results. Participants are then asked to report the result of their first roll. The higher the number of the first roll, the more money they get paid. Curiously, people often report what they got on the second or third roll, if that number was higher than the first roll. In other words, their lies are about real events (rolls), but they lie about the sequence if it benefits them and will never be discovered.

Shalvi, Eldar, and Bereby-Meyer suggest that participants lied because they felt a justification. They had actually rolled the number they reported, just not as their first roll. They were telling a kind of truth, just not the one the experimenters were asking about. The fact participants lied to experimenters who had no way of discerning the veracity of their reports also agrees with the math-quiz study.

But there was an even more interesting twist to the dice study. When people were given several minutes to decide what to tell the researcher they had rolled on their first toss, they tended to tell the truth! Here, the researchers conclude that when adults have some time to reflect on the morality of their responses, they lean toward honesty. This is another interesting glimpse at human nature.

More Help For Staff
Adults tend to snap at children and teens who break rules, leave messes, or fight with each other. Sometimes, we demand to know who did it, who left it, and who started it. However, the research suggests that getting up in someone’s grill in an attempt to intimidate and quickly extract the truth may backfire. Lies are less likely when adults say things like the following:

  • “Looks like someone took more than one ice cream sandwich. I’ll give whoever took two a couple of minutes to put one back.”
  • “I’m not sure who left these wet towels and bathing suits on the floor, but let’s work together to hang them up. We can talk about it later.”
  • “I understand there was an argument while I was gone. I’m glad it’s over now, and I’m sure it would be good to talk about it when you’re ready.”

Giving youngsters a little time and space to think through how they want to proceed will, among other things, help them decide whether they want to tell the truth or lie. Nothing will guarantee the truth, of course, and in some cases, you’ll never know. But that’s not the goal. Instead, the goal is to promote social, emotional, and moral development by stacking the cards in kids’ favor. And better not to let them stew too long. Follow up inside of 15 minutes.

Preview Of Events
In addition to the Nuclear Treaty, Surprise Party, and Tick Tock approaches, one other strategy helps to thwart deceit: the Snapshot. Adults need to give young people a sneak peek of any potential consequences that might occur if they do tell the truth. If the punishment is too severe, then campers have an incentive to lie. On the other hand, if the penance is reasonable, then so is telling the truth … at least some of the time.

Rather than chastise children, I prefer to share my perspective and give them the chance to make amends. Punishments teach kids what not to do. And the threat of harsh punishments may even increase lying, which could be seen as an additional misbehavior. Fixing what you broke, however, teaches kids what to do.

Truth Be Told
If you were to come upon a sports field strewn with gear, you might be tempted to reprimand or lecture. “Look at all this stuff! Someone just left it here! Who do you think is going to clean this up? What a bunch of spoiled brats!” Alternatively, you might quietly clean up the mess all by yourself. The first approach lets you vent, but will make you and your campers feel bad. The second approach increases kids’ sense of entitlement and is likely to make you feel resentful. Both approaches fail to teach. Neither increases the likelihood that kids will tell the truth.

A better approach might be to say, “This field is a mess. A lot of equipment was left out after the game. Let’s work together to put everything away. And later on, if someone wants to tell me who forgot to pick up, I’d appreciate it. The only consequence will be helping me clean up after this afternoon’s all-camp activity.”

A positive approach that gives a little time, helps campers make amends, and states reasonable consequences will teach good behavior and encourage honesty. Plus, if kids do own up to their transgressions, it provides an opportunity to praise truthfulness and discuss what they’ve learned. If kids lie, you may never know about it. But if you do uncover a fib, use it as an opportunity to discuss the merits of truth-telling.

You might also keep in mind that you’ve lied too, probably a lot, mostly in small ways, and usually to give others a positive impression. Looking a notch better through artifice comes at a price, though. You are the one person who will always know what the score is, what the dice show, and who made the mess. Impressions are one thing; integrity feels even better.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a psychologist, author, and father. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., and is the director of content for Expert Online Training. To book a workshop, purchase DVDs, or access leadership resources, visit CampSpirit.com.