Trusting young children breeds more trust: Study
The Sector > Research > Trust is a must – New Harvard research offers insights into children’s moral development

Trust is a must – New Harvard research offers insights into children’s moral development

by Freya Lucas

February 28, 2024

Expressing trust in young children can promote their honesty, a new study from the University of Toronto, Hangzhou Normal University, and Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) has found.


Conducted by Professor Paul Harris, Professor Kang Lee, and Professor Li Zhao and published in Nature Human Behaviour, the study found novel insights into the development of trust and integrity in early childhood. 


To reach their findings the researchers conducted a series of field experiments with 328 kindergarteners, studying whether children were less likely to cheat in a simple test of counting accuracy if the adult administering the test had previously conveyed trust in them. 


The results showed that when adults trusted children to help with small tasks, such as holding their house keys, and conveyed that they would trust them in the future, the children were significantly less likely to cheat on a subsequent test compared to children who were not given such trust messages. 


“We were surprised by how powerful an effect a simple expression of trust had on children’s subsequent honesty,” Professor Zhao said. “It seems that even at a young age, children understand the value of trust and are willing to behave more honestly in response to feeling trusted by others.” 


The results, Professor Lee said, challenge the assumption that young children are simply opportunistic or prone to dishonesty. Instead the research suggests they are acutely attuned to social cues of trust from a very young age. 


“While more work is needed, fostering an ethos of trust rather than distrust could be pivotal for supporting children’s character development in their formative early years.”


While previous research into children’s trust has shown that young children are quite selective about who they trust for information and support, these new findings show that children are also receptive to other people’s trust. 


“As a social species, establishing mutual trust would have conferred survival advantages for our distant ancestors. Children may be inclined from a young age to become trustworthy through behaviors such as reciprocity when others express trust in them,” Professor Harris said.


Access the findings in full here

Download The Sector's new App!

ECEC news, jobs, events and more anytime, anywhere.

Download App on Apple App Store Button Download App on Google Play Store Button