Why be Skeptical? Reason #1

In a previous post I put forward seven reasons why we should be skeptical (Reason For Skepticism #7 is in the comments section).  In this post I’m going to provide some facts and data in support of Reason For Skepticism #1:
(RFS1) People are often dishonest, deceptive, or have been deceived by others.
Here is a nice summary statement about psychological research on this topic:
Overall, the experimental evidence shows that when placed in the right (or wrong) situation, people are prone to lying, a behavior that starts at an early age, and people are very good at it.
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Dishonesty and deception begin at an early age for human beings.

Babies not as innocent as they pretend

By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent     12:01AM BST      01 Jul 2007     [excerpt, emphasis added]
Following studies of more than 50 children and interviews with parents,
Dr Vasudevi Reddy, of the University of Portsmouth’s psychology department, says she has identified seven categories of deception used between six months and three-years-old.
 Infants quickly learnt that using tactics such as fake crying and pretend laughing could win them attention. By eight months, more difficult deceptions became apparent, such as concealing forbidden activities or trying to distract parents’ attention.
By the age of two, toddlers could use far more devious techniques, such as bluffing when threatened with a punishment.
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Given this early practice of deception, it should be no surprise that young children often engage in lying.

Experiments Show How Readily Adults and Children Will Lie When Given the Chance To Do So

[excerpt, emphasis added]

When placed in a situation where lying is in a child’s self-interest (to avoid punishment), children as young as age two-and-a-half will lie to get out of trouble (see, Lewis).

It is interesting to note that by the time children get to be five years old – they are much more likely to lie.  Every five-year-old in these studies lied when getting caught doing something wrong.

And although it will be covered in greater detail in another section of this website, this research also reveals that it is impossible for observers (including the children’s parents) to tell whether these 3- to 5-year-olds are lying (see, lying comes easy).


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But young children have vivid imaginations,  and they don’t have a well-developed sense of right and wrong, so deception and lying are just ‘childish’ behaviors that usually decrease and fade away as people grow up and mature, right?   Sorry, but the facts don’t support such wishful thinking.

Experiments Show How Readily Adults and Children Will Lie When Given the Chance To Do So

Experimental research – secretly putting people in a controlled setting – also show how readily people will lie.
For example, during a bogus experiment on ESP (a mind-reading task), people are presented with an opportunity to cheat in order to win a $50 prize.  When people are placed in such a situation, almost everyone cheats (90%) and then when confronted about their behavior, few tell the truth; only 9 to 20% of the individuals in these studies confess when questioned (see, Miller and Stiff, DeTurck and Miller).
What is really interesting about these findings is that the same results are obtained by different researchers working in different parts of the country.
[excerpt, emphasis added]
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Another indication that deception starts early and increases as children grow up and become teenagers can be seen in data on academic cheating, a common form of deception and dishonesty.

Academic Cheating Background

[excerpt, emphasis added]
Although little research exists about cheating among pre-school and elementary school students, the following information has been presented by Janis Jacobs, a specialist in social development and associate professor at Pennsylvania State University.
At the Pre-School level children understand that cheating is morally wrong, as opposed to a social transgression (i.e. eating with their fingers). Because moral development consists of their own needs vs. punishment, they are prone to cheat in order to win.
At 5-6 years of age many children cheat if the opportunity arises. In one study of this age group, 84% knew that cheating was not allowed. However, 56% cheated. This is primarily true because they have an inability to inhibit their actions at this age.
[excerpt, emphasis added]
…The results of the 29th Who’s Who Among American High School Students Poll (of 3,123 high-achieving 16- to 18-year olds – that is, students with A or B averages who plan to attend college after graduation) were released in November, 1998. Among the findings:

  • 80% of the country’s best students cheated to get to the top of their class.
  • More than half the students surveyed said that they don’t think cheating is a big deal.
  • 95% of cheaters say they were not caught.
  • 40% cheated on a quiz or a test
  • 67% copied someone else’s homework

According to the results of a 1998 survey of 20,829 middle and high school students nationwide conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 70% of high school students and 54% of middle school students said they had cheated on an exam in the last 12 months. …
[excerpt, emphasis added]
Middle School:
Most research shows that cheating begins to set in during the middle school years (ages 11 – 13). According to The Josephson Institute of Ethics, “The evidence is fairly clear that cheating begins in the middle school fairly seriously and escalates in the higher grades, 10th, 11th and 12th grades, because that’s when the stakes are highest. It doesn’t seem as if it’s necessarily a dispositional thing, like they’ve never thought of cheating before. It’s that there isn’t much reason to cheat in the elementary school.”
According to Jacobs, research at this age shows that middle schoolers are motivated to cheat because of the emphasis placed on grades. In one study, 2/3 of middle school students report cheating on exams; 90% copy homework. Furthermore, even those who say that cheating is wrong, will cheat. The bottom line: If a child’s goal is to get a good grade, he is more likely to cheat.
High School:
Research has shown that the incidence of academic cheating among high school students has risen to all-time highs. The studies conducted by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, as well as those conducted by The Josephson Institute, are just a few of the many that demonstrate the problem. In addition, a 1997 Connecticut Department of Public Health survey of 12,000 students showed that 63% of 11th graders and 62% of ninth graders reported cheating on an exam in the previous 12 months.
According to Stephen Davis, a psychology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas: “about 20% of college students from across the nation admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940’s. That percentage has since soared, with no fewer than 75% and as many as 98% of 8,000 college students surveyed each year now reporting cheating in high school – and the majority admitting doing it on several occasions.
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To be continued…