Cognitive empathy boosts honesty in children and young adolescents

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Children and young adolescents often tend to behave dishonestly in order to serve their self-interests. This study focused on how empathic abilities affect children's tendency to deceive others. Deception is the act of causing others to form a false belief to get them to act in a way that serves the deceiver's interests. As such, it requires the ability to predict how others might use the provided information. In two experiments, 274 participants (aged 10–16 years) played a game in which they could send a deceptive message to another participant to boost their own payoff at the other player's expense. We measured participants’ cognitive and emotional empathy using different measures. We found that a measure of cognitive empathy, namely the fantasy scale, was associated with less deception of another player when that other player was not identified and was presented only as “Player B.” However, when Player B was identified by name, empathy did not predict deception. In such cases, the only factors affecting deception rates were the gain for the participant (higher possible gains lead to more deception) and loss to the other player (higher possible losses lead to less deception). Overall, the findings suggest that even by 11 years of age, children can understand the impact of their unethical behavior on another child and adjust their actions accordingly. However, when the other child is not identified, children need to possess high levels of cognitive empathy toward imagined individuals to resist the temptation to deceive the other child.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105869
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
StatePublished - 1 May 2024


  • Deception
  • Empathy
  • Fantasy scale
  • Identified victim

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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