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New Study Finds Children’s Honesty Encouraged by Trust 

Exhibiting faith in children nurtures integrity, say researchers

A new study by researchers from the University of Toronto, Hangzhou Normal University, and Harvard Graduate School of Education has found that simply expressing trust in young children can promote their honesty.

Published in Nature Human Behaviour, the study — conducted by HGSE Professor Paul Harris, Professor Kang Lee of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, and Professor Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University — found novel insights into the development of trust and integrity in early childhood.

Conducted through a series of field experiments with 328 kindergarteners, the international research team studied whether children were less likely to cheat in a simple test of counting accuracy if the adult administering the test had previously conveyed trust in them. The results showed that when adults trusted children to help with small tasks, such as holding their house keys, and conveyed that they would trust them in the future, the children were significantly less likely to cheat on a subsequent test compared to children who were not given such trust messages. 

“We were surprised by how powerful an effect a simple expression of trust had on children's subsequent honesty,” said Zhao. “It seems that even at a young age, children understand the value of trust and are willing to behave more honestly in response to feeling trusted by others.” 

“These results challenge the assumption that young children are simply opportunistic or prone to dishonesty. Our research suggests they are acutely attuned to social cues of trust from a very young age,” said Lee. “While more work is needed, fostering an ethos of trust rather than distrust could be pivotal for supporting children's character development in their formative early years.”

Harris noted that the findings build on earlier research on trust in young children. “Previous studies have show that young children are quite selective in whom they trust for information and support,” he said. “The new results show that children are also receptive to another person’s trust in them."

The effects may stem from deeply rooted evolutionary adaptations, said Harris. “As a social species, establishing mutual trust would have conferred survival advantages for our distant ancestors. Children may be inclined from a young age to become trustworthy through behaviors such as reciprocity when others express trust in them.”

Not only do the findings have important theoretical implications, but they also offer practical guidance to empower parents and educators in cultivating moral character from an early age. 

“Our results point to the promise of using trust — rather than threats or punishment — to nurture integrity in children,” said Zhao. 

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