white_lies - 47 British Journa l of Developmenta l...

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47 British Journal of Developmental Psychology (2002), 20, 47–65 2002 The British Psychological Society Children’s understanding about white lies K. A. Broomfield 1 , E. J. Robinson 2 * and W. P. Robinson 3 1 University of Birmingham, UK 2 Keele University, UK 3 University of Bristol, UK In three experiments, children suggested and justified a verbal response for a story character who received a disappointing gift. In Experiment 1, responses suggesting falsely that the recipient liked the gift were increasingly common over the ages 4–9 years. Children who suggested false responses judged that the giver would believe the gift was liked and would be happy following the falsehood. They also predicted that the giver would be unhappy had the truth been told, and passed a test of second-order false belief. However, many children who suggested truthful responses, that the gift was disliked, also revealed a full understanding of the consequences of giving true and false responses, and also passed second-order false belief. Mental-state understanding was developmentally prior to suggesting a false response. In Experiment 2, involving 6-, 8- and 10-year-olds, more children suggested false verbal than false facial responses. In Experiments 2 and 3, giving children the pro-social reason for falsifying increased the incidence of false responses, even amongst children who appeared not to be able to handle second-order mental states. In Experiment 3, 6-year-olds suggested truthful responses just as frequently, whether the speaker was an adult or a child. Many young children apparently place more weight on truth-telling than on protecting the feelings of a gift-giver. In their everyday lives, adults routinely make false or at least equivocal statements in order to protect the feelings of the hearer (e.g. Bavelas, Black, Chovil, & Mullett, 1990; Camden, Mothey, & Wilson, 1984; and presumably, these ‘white lies’ play a crucial role in maintaining social relationships. For example, on receiving a disappointing gift, adults normally attempt to disguise their disappointment and avoid announcing their true feelings, perhaps by saying something such as ‘That’s really kind of you’. Indeed, in a pilot study, we found that only one from 28 university students said they would tell the truth in a disappointing gift situation. At what age do children answer in a similar way? Bavelas et al. (1990) report a series of www.bps.org.uk * Requests for reprints should be addressed to E. J. Robinson, Department of Psychology, Keele University, Keele ST5 5BG, UK (e-mail: [email protected]).
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exploratory studies involving a few children aged between 6 and 13 years. When asked to respond as if they had just received a disappointing gift, some children suggested or selected false or equivocal statements such as ‘Oh it’s very nice’, though some were more truthful, ‘Well I don’t really like it’. In other vignettes, which, for an adult, would
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white_lies - 47 British Journa l of Developmenta l...

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