Cerebrum Article

Teaching Albert Honesty: Help from Brain Research

Kenneth Livingston, professor of psychology and director of the cognitive science program at Vassar College, suggests that brain research can now offer some powerful—if still tentative —insights to guide parents and other teachers of morality. When it comes to discussing honesty with your five-year-old child, both the theories that emphasize moral reasoning and the theories that emphasize competing feelings may fall short. Livingston proposes a way for parents to help children begin to lay the foundations of moral intelligence.

Published: October 1, 1999

You are the parent of a five-year-old boy. Let’s call him Albert. Albert comes running to tell you that his 15-month-old sister, Beth, has broken a family heirloom in the hallway. You rush to the scene, feeling anxious concern for Beth and great distress at loss of the heirloom. On your arrival, you rescue Beth from the shards of pottery that litter the floor, and thank Albert for summoning you so promptly. You are preparing to make clear your displeasure to young Beth when your eight-year-old, Christine, interjects from an adjacent room: Albert broke the vase, not Beth. Albert lied to you.

Parents in all cultures encourage in their children the character traits believed necessary for a successful life, and nearly all cultures see honesty as one such trait.1 In Western culture, other desirable traits are rationality, justice, responsibility, benevolence, independence, and integrity. Similar ideas, with variations, are found in cultures worldwide, although the emphasis and order of importance differ.2 Where the society is small and tightly integrated, just making sure that a child understands what behaviors are expected and what will happen if he meets or violates those expectations may be enough. The omnipresent scrutiny of others who know him promotes compliance, whether or not the child, and later the adult, endorses the rules.

But where society is large, complex, and anonymous, it is far more important that the child genuinely accept (“internalize”) the principles for choosing how to act. This is particularly true in societies like ours that encourage individual autonomy.

In such societies, odds are that a person will face many novel situations, in which there are few, if any, explicit, detailed “rules” for making correct choices. Many choices will be made in situations where, in effect, no one is watching; this will reduce the motivation to behave correctly out of fear of immediate censure. In short, a parent in our culture must actively promote development of a child’s moral character as a guide to action.

Recent research in cognitive science offers insights into moral development not available even a few years ago. Nor are these insights necessarily limited to child rearing. Because moral development involves neural circuitry that stays plastic throughout the human life span, these insights may well apply in other situations where the acquisition or strengthening of moral intelligence is desirable.

Reasoning or Feeling?

Are morals fundamentally matters of thought or of feeling? Philosophers like Emmanuel Kant and John Rawls, and psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, emphasize cognitive processes as the foundation for morality. Philosophers like David Hume and Arthur Schopenhauer, and psychologists like Jerome Kagan and Martin Hoffman, argue that feelings, not cognitions, are the bedrock.

For the “cognitivists,” young Albert’s problem is that he does not grasp, as yet, the full significance of his lie—or of lying in general. Imagine, for example, an attempt like this to explain the reasons for being honest:

Albert, you should not get into the habit of being dishonest. Instead, you should practice the virtue of representing reality, to yourself and to others, as it actually is. In that way you will be able to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to live an independent life; you will know what it means to take responsibility for your own actions; and you will be the kind of person of integrity with whom other good people will want to associate. Only by maintaining an honest relationship to reality are you likely to experience a life of love, productivity, and happiness. Do you understand?

That will obviously go right over 5-year-old Albert’s head. He lacks the knowledge of the social world necessary to make sense of this argument and the capacity to think easily in terms of long-term goals and consequences that this justification for honesty requires.

For the “emotivists,” Albert’s problem is his competing emotions or motivations. Whatever his grasp of honesty as an abstract concept, he wants to avoid unpleasantness. There is no chance that the broken vase will go undiscovered, so fear of punishment for breaking it is here and now. The lie, on the other hand, may or may not be discovered. Any worries about that eventuality are further off, and so less likely to govern Albert’s behavior.

Few explanations of the child’s moral growth claim that either the cognitive or emotive explanation is the whole story. Evidence can be produced for both kinds of explanations; both have initial plausibility. In practice, psychologists with a cognitive theory work primarily with older children, adolescents, and adults, using techniques for probing how people reason about very unusual, imaginary dilemmas. Psychologists with an emotive theory work primarily with infants or very young children, whose cognitive and linguistic capacities are limited. In the realm of theory, however, there is a stubborn tendency in both philosophy and psychology to insist on the distinction between feeling and thought and to claim priority for one or the other in explaining moral development. Today, evidence from cognitive science suggests that we should abandon this dichotomy.

The normal human brain reaches complex judgments, and sets a course of action in new situations, by means of a delicate integration of our circuits for reasoning with our circuits for tracking emotional and bodily states. The details of how these brain systems work is still controversial, but what we already know has definite implications for how parents can help children internalize moral standards.

A caveat: What I am suggesting here are theoretical predictions and hypotheses, not conclusions from direct tests of hypotheses. Still, I think that the research literature is at least consistent with these conjectures; they certainly warrant further study. They are a good example of how research on brain function can influence our thinking about how we change our minds and behavior.

The complex process of reasoning about moral dilemmas seems to involve circuits linking several major areas of our cerebral cortex. Shown here are the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the somatosensory cortex. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex—critical in making judgements that require us to anticipate the consequences of our actions—is a narrow strip on either side of the division between the two cerebral hemispheres and just above the eyes underneath the frontal lobes. Image courtesy of The Press Office of The Dana Foundation.

Overlapping Circuits

We now know that our frontal lobes are key players in planning and decision making. Using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to look at the brains of both normal and brain-damaged people while they perform cognitive tasks, we see that regions of the prefrontal cortex (see illustration above) are critical to success in a range of higher cognitive processes: working memory, concept formation, reasoning, planning, and goal-oriented problem solving. These are precisely the processes required for us to reason about unfamiliar moral dilemmas or for Albert to appreciate the arguments for being honest.

A different set of structures, often called the limbic system, has traditionally been associated with emotional processes.3 Damage to the amygdala, for example, results in profound changes in our ability to recognize or experience fear. PET and fMRI studies show that this brain region is active when patients experience bouts of high anxiety. Fear and anxiety, of course, are exactly the kinds of feelings that are supposed to deter disapproved behavior, as we hope Albert learns from his experience with lying about the broken vase.

The brain’s limbic system, shown here, has traditionally been associated with emotional processes, but we are now learning that it does not operate independently. Connections with cognitive areas of the brain’s cortex are part of the brain’s “judgement circuit” that appears to make possible learning moral principles in their appropriate emotional context. Image courtesy of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Although the frontal lobes and limbic system have distinctive roles, recent research challenges the idea that they operate independently, with exclusively cognitive or emotional (“affective”) content. For example, studies of both brain-damaged and normal people show that the frontal lobes are not involved solely in higher cognitive processes. The left prefrontal region is more active when we experience good feelings, while the right prefrontal region is more active when we experience bad feelings. Damage to either lobe alters the character of emotional experience.4

Similarly, the circuitry involved in processing emotions in the limbic (or other subcortical) system is not exclusively involved with feeling. The amygdala is not only involved in the experience of fear, but also comes into play in paying attention to the patterns among events. It is also essential for focusing on stimuli important to us, a task related to choosing whether or not to act by weighing the likely consequences.5

This overlap in the circuits involved in cognitive and emotional processes is just the beginning of the story. The prefrontal cortex and limbic system are tied into an enormously complex network of structures that are activated when we make a decision that raises emotional issues. (Scientists made what seemed, at first, an odd discovery about these complex circuits: they may include brain regions associated with bodily awareness. As we shall see later, this turned out to make sense in understanding how we make complex judgments.)

Recent research has shed light on this elaborate integration of brain regions. Antonio and Hanna Damasio and their colleagues at the University of Iowa have studied a group of patients with bilateral damage to the ventromedial (VM) prefrontal cortex .6 They seem normal in most ways, but people who knew them before their injuries say that their personalities have changed. Many, for example, make a series of disastrous financial or interpersonal decisions. The crux of the issue seems to be the way they make judgments that require them to anticipate the consequences of their actions.

Until recently, cognitive neuroscientists were unable to pinpoint the source of these difficulties. Then the Iowa scientists came up with a simple task that reveals a striking deficit in people whose VM prefrontal cortex is damaged. This task requires a person to choose a card from one of two facedown stacks. Each card shows an amount of money either won or lost. The stacks of cards are prearranged so that one contains cards with relatively small amounts of money won or lost, but on balance a positive payoff. The winning cards in the second stack are much larger than the winners in the first stack, but the losers are both larger and more common, so that the payoff from this stack is, on balance, disastrous. Normal subjects begin by sampling from both stacks, but gradually learn to avoid the losing stack. Patients with damage to their VM preforntal cortex, however, continue to be drawn to the big payoffs from the high-risk stack; they do not learn to avoid it.

The Iowa researchers discovered a crucial clue to this difference by measuring what is called the “skin conductance responses” (SCRs) of subjects while they were turning over cards. SCRs are used to determine when our sweat glands are active. This is informative, because it turns out that the sweat glands are controlled exclusively by the sympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system. In turn, the level of activity in our sympathetic nervous system is a fairly reliable measure of our arousal.

In the Iowa studies, both brain-damaged and undamaged subjects reacted with arousal to the payoffs from turning over cards in the two decks, whether those payoffs were positive or negative. Only the normal subjects, however, began to show anticipatory responses. Even before they could articulate the difference between the two stacks, these subjects with intact brains began to show arousal reactions in anticipation of turning over a card. Patients with damage to the VM prefrontal cortex showed no anticipatory arousal.

Thus the VM prefrontal cortex seems crucial in the circuitry that integrates our intention to behave with the anticipated outcomes of that behavior. Just as important, the VM prefrontal cortex seems to integrate both of these with an appropriate anticipatory emotion (which we can call an “affective tag”). Antonio Damasio7 refers to the emotional component of this reaction as a “somatic marker,” which means that it has the quality of a bodily sensation as well as an emotional tone. Here, then, is the possible significance of the initially surprising discovery, mentioned earlier, of the involvement of the somatosensory cortex which involves bodily awareness, in circuits for cognitive and affective processing.

A State of Mind Called “Good Character”

All this suggests that we have a widely distributed, complex circuit in our brains that mediates decision making. The several parts of this neurocircuitry combine to produce a mental state that has both emotional and cognitive components. The cognitive component can range from general intuition, to knowledge of specific rules, to understanding of abstract moral principles. Young Beth from our beginning scenario is already beginning to grasp that her actions can be judged according to stable standards, and Albert surely knows the rules about roughhousing in the hallway. If Albert had known that his older sister was monitoring his behavior, he might have felt some anxiety in anticipation his violation of that rule. What he does not have, as yet, is an inner concept of honesty and a suitably abstract theory about honesty’s value—a theory that comes equipped with the kinds of affective tags that would help him to guide his choices about whether or not to tell the truth.

© Paul Meisel

The full story of how brain systems make all of that possible is still being discovered, but we can see that good judgment requires both intellectual analysis and the ability to generate the appropriate emotional reactions. One must identify the new situation as being of a certain kind, appreciate the rule or principle involved, and have those indispensable anticipatory emotions that one attached to the alternative actions one is considering. In this state of mind we have all the essential elements for making good choices in novel situations. Achieving this state of mind corresponds, roughly, to what our folk psychology calls “having good character.”

Moral development becomes a matter of learning sound principles in an appropriate emotional context. It is a joint product of the cognitive and affective grasp of a situation. It turns out that patients with damage to the VM prefrontal cortex can score quite high on a standard test of moral judgement but still fail at the card selection task. They can even respond with appropriate feelings to immediate feedback (a winning or losing card). What they cannot do is link their intellectual analysis with an appropriate anticipatory emotion.

The Thought-Feeling Packet

Having an intact brain does not make these linkages automatic. Given the way the brain is built, the kinds of actions and experiences we have been discussing are required to help children to internalize moral standards (rather than comply by rote with a rule). How should we interact with our children to promote this internalizing?

We saw that patients with damage to the VM prefrontal cortex can respond to instructions or commands. They can have the appropriate feelings toward immediate rewards or punishment. But they cannot appreciate the emotional implications of stimuli that are not themselves rewarding or punishing. In this respect, they are like very young children, who can behave well as long as the consequences are clear and immediate. This suggests that the relevant portions of what I will call the brain’s “judgment circuit” may not be completely in place among toddlers and young preschoolers, although research indicates that some capacity for internalized regulation of behavior begins to emerge by age three or four.8 How can parents encourage the growth and elaboration of this capacity?

Simply rewarding or punishing the child is unlikely to do the job, even if we assume that the child is bright and prone to trying to figure out abstract principles on his own. Think about Albert’s dilemma. He has been caught in a lie, and let us imagine that he is duly punished. Why should the lesson he learns be, “Don’t lie?”  Why shouldn’t it be, “Make sure your big sister isn’t around before you tell a whopper,” or, more generally, “Don’t get caught lying?”

Awareness of the consequences of his act is simply not enough. We want much more. We want Albert to understand in a suitably abstract way what it means to be honest and why honesty is the best policy. We also want the concept of honesty linked to his anticipation of consequences, both positive (when he represents reality as it is) and negative (when he misrepresents it). Only then will he be able to recognize novel situations that challenge him to be honest and respond appropriately. The findings from brain research imply that we need to bring cognitive and emotional experiences together in Albert’s mind, forming an integrated cognitive-emotional packet. But Albert, as yet, does not know enough about the world to formulate the right anticipations or understand the consequences that he risks. Add to that his relatively short time horizon and the problem is compounded. In a great many situations, acting against a moral principle reaps immediate rewards or avoids immediate punishments in the here and now. Future consequences are not even on his mental radar screen. What is a parent to do?

One promising possibility is to think in terms of  “virtual consequences.”  The parent’s job is to bring the future into the present for the child, to make it palpable, and to do so in a way that accurately represents the world as it is—but at a level that is accessible to the child. This is a tall order. Look more closely at the three components.

  • First, the child needs to be able to experience—immediately—the unpleasantness associated with being dishonest or behaving irresponsibly. And of course he needs to have some way of experiencing, also in the present moment, the joys of acting honestly or responsibly.
  • Second, he has to get information that helps him to build the abstract concept at issue (such as honesty or responsibility), so that what he feels is linked to this more general notion—not merely to the specific situation that provoked the parental response. (Remember, the goal is to internalize a principle, not a list of rules.)
  • Finally, once an immediate connection is made between the concept of the virtue in question and an emotion associated with achieving or failing to achieve this virtue, the child’s time horizon needs to be stretched to introduce the critical element of anticipation.
© Paul Meisel

Consider Albert’s case again. The parent might begin by immediately withdrawing a privilege based on trust (like choosing a television program and watching it alone). Albert would feel disappointed or unhappy and, with some discussion of the importance of trust and honesty, might begin to build a concept of truth-telling that transcends the immediate situation with the vase. Later, if Albert lied again about something important, earning a more dramatic punishment, our approach would suggest that the punishment ought to be promised but then delayed for a short time, during which Albert would be encouraged to anticipate what is about to happen.

Driving Home the Principles

We know how people form abstract concepts such as honesty. You encounter instances of the concept in a way that makes the similarities of those instances stand out in your mind against contrasting experiences. The contrasting experiences need not be simultaneous. They do have to be brought together in thought, however, so that the similarities stand out against the background of differences. Then a mental concept begins to form that includes all instances of a specific type and, just as important, excludes all instances of every other type.

If this is so, Albert needs a third episode to provide that contrast with two episodes or instances when his honesty was called into question. Fortunately, parents of five-year-olds are in frequent negotiation about privileges that require a promise from the child. The third episode could come about when the parent insists upon a demonstration of Albert’s honesty before making new deals that involve trusting him. There would be the appropriate reference back to the vase incident, of course. This situation gives Albert the opportunity to redeem himself by acting on the principle, and also introduces the element of a longer time horizon. Thus it strengthens Albert’s anticipation of positive feelings for acting in accordance with the principle—not just negative ones for violating it.

© Paul Meisel

Details of this approach will change as the child gains knowledge and cognitive sophistication, of course. Time horizons will lengthen, negotiations will be about different privileges, and different consequences will be required to make the point. The goal, however, remains the same: to build a unified cognitive-emotional standard to guide action.

Temperaments, Stories, and Social Conventions

Differences among children will affect how a parent should actually present the potential consequences of the child’s actions. For example, children have different temperaments. Thanks to the work of Jerome Kagan we know a great deal about children who, because they react strongly to stimulation, are inhibited in new situations. If the child’s emotional reaction is too strong, it may actually disrupt the delicate coordination of the cognitive and emotional circuitry that must occur as the child internalizes standards. This might be a primary concern of a parent with a very reactive, inhibited child. The challenges will be different for the parent of a child with a much higher threshold of reactivity, who is active and uninhibited. The trick may be to keep the child’s attention focused on the relevant thoughts even as the parent induces enough feeling of the appropriate kind.

Let me emphasize: parents do not have to limit themselves to reacting. In other situations, they can actively provide the raw material for learning moral principles. Observing and talking about how other people act, including characters in children’s fables, are opportunities to contrast specific episodes in a way that builds a new concept or principle. The same story can be an opportunity to explore feelings that are evoked in the child, thus encouraging the formation of the necessary integrated cognitive-emotional packet. It cannot be an accident that many fables are built around events and characters that provoke feelings in children even as they convey an abstract principle. We do not know, as yet, whether stories (and learning by observation alone) work as well in promoting the internalization of standards as do personal encounters. The answer may well differ with the child’s temperament and level of cognitive development.

Remember, our goal is not simply to promote guilt over the violation of internal standards. We want to encourage positive thoughts and feelings in anticipation of acting in accordance with a principle. To do that we have to look for opportunities to promote desirable actions, not just occasions for discouraging undesirable ones.

Parent as Psychologist, Philosopher, and Problem-Solver

All of this presents parents with a demanding prescription. It requires the parent to have a clear sense of moral principle and a grasp of those principles in reasonably explicit terms. It also requires an ability to express those principles in language understandable to the child. Such a parent needs to be a bit of a moral philosopher. Our approach also requires that the parent be a bit of a child psychologist, with a sense of the child’s cognitive and temperamental strengths and weaknesses. To top it off, a parent will need some on-the-spot problem-solving skills to come up with appropriate responses to situations that are often, by their nature, unexpected.

A rich relationship between the parent and child should make it more likely that the parent can find the right response in a given situation. While, at least in the abstract, the virtual consequences strategy can be employed by any adult with any child (and indeed in any situation calling for moral growth), parents are unique in the motivation and knowledge they bring to this challenging task. Both our neuroscience and our knowledge of development suggest good reasons for encouraging and supporting their efforts to meet the challenge.


  1. Broude G. 1995. Growing Up: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO.
  2. Shweder R, Mahapatra, M and Miller, J. 1987. Culture and moral development. In J. Kagan and S. Lamb (Eds), The Emergence of Morality in Young Children. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.1-83.
  3. LeDoux JE. 1996. The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  4. Davidson RJ. 1995.Cerebral Asymetry, emotion, and affective style. In R.J. Davidson and K. Hugdahl (eds.). Brain Asymmetry. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp.361-387.
  5. Holland PC and Gallagher, M. 1999. Amygdala circuitry in attentional and representational processes. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, pp. 65-73.
  6. Becharra A, Damasio AR, Damasio H, and Anderson, S. 1994. Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex. Cognition, 50, pp. 7-12.
  7. Damasio, A. 1994. Descartes’ Error. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  8. Kochanska G, Aksan,N, and Koenig AL. 1995. A longitudinal study of the roots of preschoolers’ conscience: Committed compliance and emerging internalization. Child Development, 66, pp. 1752-1769.
  9. Kagan J. 1997. Temperament and the reactions to unfamiliarity. Child Development, 68, pp. 139-143.
  10. Fox, N A, et al., 1995. Frontal activation asymmetry and social competence at four years of age. Child Development, 66, pp. 1770-1784.