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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

How Honest Are You? Your Students?

And are we more honest when people are looking?
By Angela Duckworth — April 05, 2023 2 min read
How much can I trust students?
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How much can I trust students?

Scientists wondered if people were honest when no one was looking, so they came up with a clever test. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

As a young man, my dad came upon a lost wallet with a very large sum of cash inside.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I looked around for its owner for quite a while. But there was nobody in sight. So I took it to the Lost and Found.”

“But maybe the people at the Lost and Found took the money,” I pointed out. “Maybe if you’d kept the money instead of returning the wallet, you could have done something good with it.”

I was in elementary school when my dad told me this story, but I already knew how easy it was to tell a little lie in order to get out of trouble. I knew I’d once snuck into my mom’s purse and swiped a $20 bill without permission. And I knew how easy it was to come up with explanations for why, just this time, it was OK not to tell the truth.

“Well, maybe so,” my dad replied. “But not me. I knew I did the right thing.”

Have you ever wondered how many people would, like my dad, return a lost wallet?

To answer that question, scientists devised a clever honesty test. They assembled more than 17,000 identical clear plastic wallets containing a business card and different amounts of cash, then asked members of their research team across 40 countries to return them to the front desk of hotels, post offices, and other public places, explaining each time that “somebody must have lost it. I’m in a hurry and have to go. Can you please take care of it?”

If people are honest, the researchers reasoned, they would go to the trouble of reaching out to the email address on the business card.

What scientists learned is that both within and between countries, there’s a lot of variability in honesty. But in general, the more money was in the wallet, the more likely it would be returned—suggesting that, like my dad, a lot of people are motivated to do the right thing.

To this day, I remember how awful I felt knowing that I’d stolen $20 from my mother. So awful, in fact, that a few days later, I snuck into her purse a second time to put it back.

Don’t assume that kids grow up to be honest without positive role models. But don’t pretend that you’ve never told a lie, either.

Do talk about honesty. Tell stories that show you know how hard it can be to tell the truth. Show kids that you, too, are learning how to do the right thing.

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The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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