Men, studies have shown, lie more than women. They’re more likely to cheat on bus fares, and less likely to return extra change in a restaurant. But new research shows that the gender differences in lying may start in childhood — and at home.
Research released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that parents are more likely to lie in front of sons than daughters, potentially teaching boys at an early age that dishonesty is socially acceptable.
In the study of 152 parents and their children aged 3-5, parents flipped two coins. Each coin had a green side and blue side, and if the coins both landed green side up, the participants would get a prize. In some cases the prize was $10 for the parents, in other cases the prize was a toy for the child. Across the board, parents lied more when the prize was for their kids. But more significant, researchers say, is that parents lied more when boys, rather than girls, were watching.
In the coin-toss scenario, the probability of winning the prize was 25 percent. When parents had their daughters with them, they reported getting the winning flip 28 percent of the time – just above the expected rate. But when boys were present, parents reported winning 42 percent of the time.
“Parents model behavior differently,” Anya Savikhin Samek, a co-author of the study, tells Yahoo Parenting. “We can’t say for sure why, but it could be that since parents observe it’s more socially acceptable for men to be dishonest, they teach and model dishonesty differently to sons than to daughters.”
Samek and her team didn’t set out looking for a gender difference, but instead wanted to understand the origins of dishonesty. “We do find that one of the origins is parenting,” she says. Lying in front of young boys more often, she says, could translate to men lying more as adults. “Around age four, kids develop theory of mind. That allows them to understand that others can have a different set of facts than they do, and that leads to the understanding that you can deceive people.” Which means that a lot of the kids in Samek’s experiment understood exactly what their parent was doing, and could copy that behavior.
“Even these small kinds of lies, they have a big cost to society,” Samek says. “Shirking on the job costs employers billions of dollars. Fudging taxes has far-reaching effects. If we want a society that lies less, we need to model better behavior to our sons as well as to daughters.”