Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

By Ken J. Rotenberg1, Lucy Betts2, and Pamela Qualter3

Many people were read The Little Red Riding Hood story by their mothers or fathers when they were young children. The story has been a popular fable for over 300 years and its persistent use most likely depends on its educational value.  As in many fables, its innocence disguises a very serious educational purpose: to inform young children that they need to be cautious about trusting others too much.  It should be added that there are other fables designed to educate young children about trust such as “Pinocchio” or “The Boy Who Called Wolf”. These fables are designed specifically to inform young children about the consequences of being untrustworthy.

Before deciphering The Little Red Riding Hood fable, however, let us briefly describe the 3 Bases x 3 Domains x 2 Target Dimensions (BDT) framework of interpersonal trust (see trust-or-not-trust).  The framework includes the following three bases of trust: (1) reliability, which refers to a person fulfilling his or her word and promise; (2) emotional trust, which refers to a person refraining from causing emotional harm (e.g., keeping secrets); and (3) honesty, which refers to a person telling the truth and engaging behaviours that are guided by benign and genuine intentions.  The three domains are (a) cognitive/affect, which comprises individuals’ beliefs and feelings that others demonstrate the three bases of trust, (b) behavior-dependent that comprises individuals behaviourally relying on others to act in a trusting fashion as per the three bases of trust, and (c) behavior-enacting (i.e., trustworthiness) that comprises individuals behaviorally engaging in the three bases of trust. The dimensions of the target of trust are (a) specificity, ranging from generalized to a specific person, and (b) familiarity, ranging from somewhat unfamiliar to very familiar.  According to this framework, trust also has a strong reciprocal quality.    

Back to the story.”  Trust and trustworthiness are depicted at different points in The Little Red Riding Hood fable.  At the beginning, Little Red Riding Hood promises to her mother that she will not to talk to anyone on the way to her grandmother’s house. Nevertheless, Little Red Riding Hood violates that promise by talking to the Wolf and tells him where she was going.  Her actions represent low reliability trustworthiness according to the BDT interpersonal trust framework. Once at the house, Little Red Riding Hood initially trusts her “grandmother” (i.e., the Wolf) both by her beliefs and behavior: these represent the honesty beliefs and honest behavior-dependent trust, respectively.  After detecting some physical anomalies when scrutinizing the grandmother closely, Little Red Riding Hood expresses the classic phrase, “But Grandmother!  What big teeth you have” as distrust.  These reflect the violation of honesty trust beliefs according to the BDT interpersonal trust framework, which results in withdraw from the interaction (see do-you-trust-the-right-amount), including actions designed to protect her life. (Thank goodness for the trusted woodsman!)

The writer of Little Red Riding Hood fable did not have the opportunity to read the BDT interpersonal trust framework, but the framework is useful in deciphering its message because the framework depicts trust as it was and is. As noted, the Little Red Riding Hood fable remains popular because parents and other social agents feel that they need to teach children that there are consequences of being untrustworthy and of trusting others too much.                                    

What cues do children use to decide who to trust?  In real life, individuals do not have exceptionally big eyes and teeth – talking wolves are hard to find -- so what do children use to decide if someone is deceiving them? It is worthwhile to note that this refers to the honesty basis and cognitive/affective domain of the BDT interpersonal trust framework. There is evidence that children believe that gaze aversion and elevated limb movement reveal deception, such as looking away from others and rapid movements when telling a lie (Einav, & Hood, 2008; Rotenberg & Sullivan, 2003).  In that vein, children acquire with age the strategy of suppressing gaze aversion when they are trying to deceive others (McCarthy & Lee, 2009).  These are misguided, however, because neither gaze aversion or limb movement reveals deception by children or adults (Vrij, Akehurst, Soukara, & Bull, 2004). Furthermore, similar to adults, children are very poor at detecting deception and rarely exceed chance in detecting it (see Vrij et. al., 2004).

What can parents do? The preceding research may be taken to suggest that children are highly vulnerable to being deceived and parents may not be able to protect them from deception and its consequences. This is not very comforting for parents but there is some hope.  

First, research indicates that there are cues that are indicative of deception such as long pauses, frequent speech hesitations, frequent speech disturbances, and high pitch (see DePaulo et al., 2003). Parents could encourage their children to attend to those cues in order detect deception and, if parents are present during the communication, they could assist their children by attending to those cues as well.

Second, parents could encourage children to actively evaluate the honesty/truthfulness of a person’s communication. According to the work by Forrest, Feldman, and Tyler (2004) this cognitive orientation increases individuals’ use of cues indicative of deception and increases their detection of deception. We would like to caution parents, however, to avoid promoting in children a very low trusting orientation because very low trust is linked to psychosocial problems (do-you-trust-the-right-amount). We suggest encouraging children to draw upon multiple cues for deception and adopt an active critical evaluation orientation primarily when the social situation warrants it (e.g., in danger of being victimized).

Third and finally, there is evidence that adults (Clements et al., 2010) and children (Rotenberg 1991) engage in various forms of testing the truthfulness of a person’s communication. Those strategies include direct questioning (i.e., do you mean that) and assessing the consistency of the communication across type information (i.e., verbal and nonverbal), time, and other physical evidence. When adults adopt those types of strategies they are more effective in detecting deception (see Clements et al., 2010).  Parents could encourage children to engage in those strategies in order to successfully detect when people are attempting to deceive.

Techno-wolves: The internet provides us with a wealth of information and knowledge, as well as useful ways to positively communicate with others.  Nevertheless, it provides us with what can be called techno-wolves: those individualswho appear tobe kind, honest and friendly on the internet but use the internet to malevolent ends.  There are cases in which adults pretend to be adolescents on-line and entice adolescents to send sexually explicit self-photos to them.  The perpetrators then blackmail the adolescents into performing sexual favours with some of those adolescents committing suicide.  These comprise a special case of cyberbullying and, although rare, they are truly tragic events. 

The Little Red Riding Hood and other fables are not enough to guard children and adolescents from being victims from cyberbulling on the internet.  The problem with the internet is that (aside from Skype), users do not have access to the range of cues to detect deception that are available from more conventional forms of communication.  Nevertheless, parents could encourage children and adolescents to adopt some types of strategies to detect deception, such as direct questioning and assessing the consistency of the communication with other relevant information.  Because of lack of conventional cues used to detect deception though, children and adolescents would do well to be cautious in communicating and interacting with unfamiliar others on the internet. There are various sites that provide parents with information and guidance regarding children’s and adolescents’ internet usage: some sources are listed in the reference section of this Blog. 

Affiliations and Acknowledgment

1 Professor Ken J. Rotenberg, School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Newcastle -Under-Lyme, Staffordshire, UK, ST5 5BH, e-mail: k.j.rotenberg@keele.ac.uk

2. Dr. Lucy Betts,Senior Lecturer, Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK, NG1 4BU, e-mail: lucy.betts@ntu.ac.uk

Dr. Pamela Qualter, Reader in Developmental Psychology, School of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK, PR1 2HE, email: PQualter@uclan.ac.uk

The authors extend their thanks to Professor Jim Hartley (Keele University) for his assistance in writing this blog.


Clements, F., Granhag, P. A., Strömwall, L. A., Vtij, A., Landström, S., Af Hjelmsäter,  E. R., & Hartwig, M. (2010).  Skulking around the dinosaur: Eliciting cues to children's deception via strategic disclosure of evidence. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 925-940.

Einav, S., & Hood, B. M. (2008). Tell-tale eyes: Children's attribution of gaze aversion as a lying cue. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1655-67.

Forrest, J. A., Feldman, R. S., & Tyler, J. M. (2004). When accurate beliefs lead to better detection. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 764-780.

DePaulo, B. M., Lindsay, J. L., Malone, B. E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K., & Cooper, H. (2003). Cues to deception. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 74-118.

McCarthy A., & Lee, K. (2009). Children's knowledge of deceptive gaze cues and its relation to their actual lying behavior. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 103, 117-34.

Rotenberg, K. J. (1991). Children's cue use and strategies for detecting deception. In Ken J. Rotenberg (Ed.) Children's interpersonal trust: Sensitivity to lying, deception, and promise violations (pp. 43-57), New York: Springer-Verlag.

Rotenberg, K. J. & Sullivan, C. (2003). Children's use of gaze and limb movement cues to infer deception. Journal of Genetic Psychology,164, 175-187.

Vrij, A., Akehurst, L., Soukara, S., & Bull, R. (2004). Detecting deceit via analyses of verbal and nonverbal behavior in children and adults. Human Communication Research, 30, 8–41.

Sources for Information regarding Internet Use and Its Effects on Adolescents

http://www.bullyingstatistics. org/content/bullying-and-suicide.html/



About the Authors

Ken Rotenberg, Ph.D.

Ken Rotenberg, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Keele University in the UK. He researches trust, loneliness, and other areas.

Pamela Qualter, Ph.D.

Pamela Qualter, Ph.D., is a Reader in Developmental Psychology, School of Psychology, at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.

Lucy Betts, Ph.D.

Lucy Betts, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University in the UK.

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