Croskey’s Corner: Honesty
(Originally published in February 2018)
OK, Time for a True/False quiz to recognize Honesty.
True/False: If you are swimming, you have to wait an hour after eating or you’ll get cramps and drown.
True/False: Keep unused batteries in the refrigerator to prolong their lives.
True/False: Sugar causes hyperactivity in children.
The answers are all “False” or at least highly debated. These beliefs are old “wives” tales, or what would now be called Urban Legends. For further information on these, check out https://www.snopes.com/
You may or may not agree with the above statements. (If you want to get teachers – or parents- riled up, ask them on the day after Halloween or Easter whether candy causes increased hyperactivity!) Not unlike UFO sightings or miracle cures, legends entice us to be believers, and to pass them on as true. Also, legends may be attractive because they are really just well-constructed stories. I’ll bet you know a storyteller; a charismatic person who enjoys the conversation spotlight. A storyteller hooks the listeners, leads them along, and delights or surprises them with the ending. The joy of a story well-told comes from the pictures created, the pretending they afford, and the possibilities which are conjured by the telling. With storytelling, taking the trip is often as much fun as reaching the destination.
When I was a kid, one expression that our parents used to describe us NOT telling the truth was to say we were “telling stories.” The message from this turn of a phrase was that a “story” was an untruth. OK, I admit a story may be true, or false, or a mixture. But you might readily agree that one can convince a lot more listeners with a story than one can by showering an audience with facts. Stories may be more powerful than data, yet those stories that are false can lead others to act based on lies. That brings us to the Character Quality of Honesty, and its opposite, Deception.
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist whom I have written about in the past, tells the story of a locksmith, a philosopher-tradesman, really. The locksmith believes that one percent of people will always be honest and never steal. Another 1% will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television; locks won’t do much to protect you from the hardened thieves, who can get into your house if they really want to. The purpose of locks, the locksmith said, is to protect you from the 98% of mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock. Ariely has research to suggest that our approach to the Truth is proportionately about the same. Most people are a little dishonest, he says, in his latest book, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves”. He conducted a research study in which subjects had to take a test, then report on how many answers they got right, with the knowledge that they would be paid a dollar for every correct answer. When the subjects believed that they would be the only ones who knew their exact score, they tended to cheat and report higher scores than they actually achieved. When the subjects earned tokens, which could immediately be turned into dollars, even more people cheated. So, the indication is that many, if not most of us, are at least somewhat Untruthful.
You are thinking, “OK, Bill, what you are saying is, people tell little lies and sometimes big lies. What else is new?” My guess is that the idea that humans tend to stretch the Truth, combined with the idea that we love to hear stories, suggests that people are likely to tell exaggerated or even made-up stories to make a point. Then add this to the mix: Research tells us that we remember a concept better when we have an emotional reaction to it. Doesn’t a story help you generate feeling for the topic? When I was a young driver, seat belts were just starting to be standard equipment on cars. I was a casual belt “clicker.” But one day, I watched as a car in front of me got “T-boned” by a car from a side street. It was a chilly December, but as I drove by the scene, I saw the driver who’d been hit stretched out, half-naked, on the pavement, his clothes ripped off as he was thrown through the windshield. Clearly, he had not been wearing his seat belt. All the data about seat belts saving lives had registered with me. But the story I saw unfold made me a life-long seat belt user. I tell that story to others, hoping to convince them to use their belts. Thus, love of stories + tendency to exaggerate + emotional teaching power of stories = stories being a strong force for good – or not. This applies to school.
Here is a current example. Many of us know a situation where a student was retained and found more school success after repeating a grade in school. Yet the research on retention is overwhelming! Retained students are more likely to be from a minority group, be male, more likely to drop out of school, have a late birthday, be delayed in development, have attention problems, live in poverty or in a single-parent household, have parents with low educational attainment, have parents that are less involved in their education, or have changed schools frequently. Yet because of the power of anecdotes shared by educators or family friends, we tell a convincing story about a person who was seemingly helped by a retention and talk parents into holding their child back. This may be story power misused.
Teachers are faced with this dilemma of the power of stories in another way. You are in a battle for the brainpower of your students. Brainpower for students is like purchasing power for consumers. The student and the consumer have only so much time, and space, and credit (or thinking effort) to “spend” on a purchase. These two types of purchases come together with TV ads. A company that places ads wants TV viewers to spend money on its product. The advertising company promoting the product usually wants the consumer to spend little or no brain power on the message. If the consumer spent more brainpower, he or she would probably spend less money because the arguments made for buying are so flimsy. The less thinking the better. Same with video games or entertainment TV: not much thinking need be spent here, but a lot of money, or time. But school requires a lot of thinking to be expended. In this way, teachers are competing for the attention and interest of their students. And dry facts, data, logic, and complicated arguments may lose the audience. So, teachers are tempted to resort to the TV ad approach and tell a story that intrigues the student but may not help them advance their understanding of the skill or concept.
Stories are more fun to listen to than a string of facts. We like stories and want to believe them. Yet they may be less than truthful, exaggerated, appeal to emotions but not intellect, and may discourage critical thinking. Facts and data can be crucial in helping students to make judgments, to analyze, and to draw conclusions. Therefore, maybe we are OK in doing both in school. Searching critically for the truth and storytelling may each have a role in helping us reach students. When we want to encourage imagination and growth, we may choose storytelling. When we want to help a student acquire or advance in a skill, we may need to provide the facts and the skills for the student to grow. Is it oversimplifying to say that life divides into “What to think?” and “How to think?” situations? In that case, facts and stories have the potential to lead to the path of wisdom and more truth – just from different starting places.