June 25, 2014

Moral Stories and the Media

Whose thoughts are you thinking?A recent study carried out by researchers, Victoria Talwar of McGill University and Kang Lee at the University of Toronto, demonstrated the value of praising a character’s honesty as a more effective tool to get young children to tell the truth, than a story that emphasizes the punishment or repercussions to lying. Quoting the University Herald:

“As parents of young children, we wanted to know how effective the stories actually are in promoting honesty. Is it ‘in one ear, out the other,’ or do children listen and take the messages to heart?”

For the study, researchers conducted an experiment with more than 250 children ages 3 to 7. Each child played a game that required guessing the identity of a toy based on the sound it made. In the middle of the game, the experimenter left the room for a minute to grab a book, instructing the child not to peek at a toy that was left on the table. For most children, this temptation was too hard to resist.

When the coordinator of the study returned, she read the child a story, either “The Tortoise or the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “Pinocchio,” or “George Washington and the Cherry Tree.” Afterward, the experimenter asked the child to tell the truth about whether he or she peeked at the toy.

Based on their findings, “Pinocchio” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” — which associate lying with negative consequences, such as public humiliation and even death — were no more effective at promoting honest behavior than “The Tortoise and the Hare,” a fable unrelated to honesty.

They found that the apocryphal tale about a young George Washington seemed to inspire the kids to admit to peeking.

Researchers said children who heard the tale in which Washington is praised for confessing his transgression were three times more likely to tell the truth than their peers who heard other stories.

Talwar said the story about George Washington may be effective because it demonstrates “the positive consequences of being honest by giving the message of what the desired behavior is, as well as demonstrating the behavior itself.”

There was a time that we read to our children. However, more and more children today have had this reading time substituted with media, the television or a video game or even their first computer, the small ones, those made especially for children and sold as teaching aids — and what are the message units they offer?

The George Washington story illustrates the power of positive reinforcement. Indeed, when the researchers changed the ending of the Washington story so that it presented a negative repercussion, children who heard the story were no longer more likely to admit peeking.

Our society is full of negative sell images, basically all of those that insist you’re inadequate and therefore need what they have to offer, and then there is all of that fear mongering rhetoric that goes along with not just the sell info but accompanies everyone’s agendas today. If you vote for so and so, the world will end, if you don’t get this or that, well you’ll suffer. Seldom do young people encounter an offer where their honesty is rewarded. Think about that?

How many times as parents do we threaten our children about lying instead of praise their honest behavior?

Like it or not, we live in a mediaocracy today that on a 24-7 basis delivers content designed to manipulate us in some way — period, full stop! The agenda behind this content could care less about anything short of selling its message! And this is what our children are all too often subjected to as their primary learning environment. And it isn’t just our children — adults are as immersed in this as are the kids. The end result may well be extrapolated from some of the research we know about where values are involved in entertainment. Take for example the game, Grand Theft Auto. When adult males play this game their values are altered. They become more accepting of drugs and violence after only one week of playing, based on pre and post testing.

Our media is well known for what’s known as the “The Moral Panic Concept.” This concept may be defined as “an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and perhaps reinforced by reactive laws and/or public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order.” What comes to my mind at the moment is the outrage over the Washington Redskins Football team’s name. Now my point isn’t whether this name is a slur or not to Native Americans, it’s rather how the media suddenly finds it reprehensible as though they have been railing against it in every sports broadcast for many years.

So, not to lose our point — the media brings to our attention not just the issues of the moment, but in so doing; they deliver a large portion of our morality. What’s soon to be acceptable will always appear in our entertainment and/or other media first. Obviously, the need for role models and stories portraying the rewarding side of honesty, as well as the other virtues that we hold special, should be what we seek when we choose what we fill our minds and the minds of our children with.

Now, we’re limited by time, but one more point is necessary to flesh out the full picture here. Research now suggests that fear can travel quickly through generations of mice DNA. In the newest of studies, researchers taught male mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms. Two weeks later they bred the males and the resulting pups, having no prior exposure to cherry blossoms, nevertheless suddenly became anxious and fearful when they experienced their first whiff of cherry blossoms. Take it a step further, according to the Washington Post,“neuroscientists at Emory University found that genetic markers, thought to be wiped clean before birth, were used to transmit a single traumatic experience across generations, leaving behind traces in the behavior and anatomy of future pups.” There’s little to no reason to believe that these findings will not hold true for good old homo sapiens as well.

So, selling fear has many ramifications! When next you think about building character, remember that character, honesty, integrity, knows its own rewards, and those rewards are not found in fear!

Thanks for the read,

Eldon Taylor

Eldon Taylor

Eldon Taylor
Provocative Enlightenment
NY Time Bestselling Author of Choices and Illusions