The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Parents are more willing to lie in front of boys than girls

Why do we lie? Economists may have found a key difference in lying and gender dynamics.

Students walk off of a bus on the first full day of school for most Northeast Florida students in August. (AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack)
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Women lie. Men lie, possibly more. Maybe we can blame our parents.

A new paper released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research seeks to understand the origin of dishonesty, gendered or otherwise -- and how we can learn to curb it.

The dark side of human impulse, researchers found, may start with parenting decisions: Moms and dads monitored in a recent Chicago field experiment were significantly more likely to cheat in front of boys than girls.

“Parents didn’t want to role model dishonest behavior to girls,” said co-author Anya Savikhin Samek, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “Maybe that’s because dishonest behavior is considered more socially acceptable for boys… It’s not a causal relationship, but the gender finding gives us something to think about how societies form and about the origins of dishonesty.”

Here’s how the experiment worked: When researchers left the room, parents flipped two coins -- each with a green and blue side -- and wrote down the results. The combination of “green-green” earned them a $10 prize. Reporting anything else was worthless.

The study authors didn’t directly observe cheating. Rather, they measured dishonesty by comparing the average winning rates (0.39) to the objective probability of scoring the prize (only 0.25).

Researchers examined a few scenarios: whether or not the child was in the room, whether the reward was for the parent or child, and whether the child was male or female. Subjects reported a suspiciously high percentage of winning coin tosses when 1) the child was out of the room, 2) the reward was for the child and 3) the child happened to be a boy.

Parents appeared more motivated to fib if it meant their child would benefit, Samek’s team figured -- but they might have felt uncomfortable setting a bad example if one of their children was present.

Less so, however, in front of sons: The reported rate of wins with a daughter in tow was 0.28, barely above the expected rate of 0.25. Under the scrutiny of a boy, it was 0.42.

The gender result could be tied to social norms, the authors wrote: “knowing that it is more important for girls to grow up honest, parents might incur a higher moral cost from lying in front of a girl… This finding has the potential of shedding light on the origins of the widely documented gender differences in cheating behavior observed among adults.”

Samek’s experiment, applied more widely, might not return the same findings. But we can infer nurture is a powerful force. (Other research, for example, shows that girls grow up to be much more competitive in women-dominated societies.) We could trail off about how gender roles are simply social constructs, but, today… I’ll leave that to this Saved by the bell hooks Tumblr page.