Paper Review: Keeping secrets: Young children and group loyalty

Misch, A., Over, H., & Carpenter, M. (2016). I won’t tell: Young children show loyalty to their group by keeping group secrets. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 142, 96-106.

It was at a conference last year that I first saw this paper presented. Interested, I banked it to read later. Then I saw it on the BPS Research Digest. It was time to dive in. This study involved 96 German 4 or 5 year-olds, interacting with hand puppets (developmental research is good fun 🙂 ) . The children and four of the puppets were introduced to each other, and then allocated to either the yellow or the green colour group, with two puppets put in each group. Groups were flagged by the wearing of a coloured scarf, that the child was also invited to wear. The child then left the room with the researcher, supposedly to help look for something, and on returning discovered two of the puppets, either from their own group, or the other group hiding a book.  The puppets  told children that the book was the group’s secret and urged them not to tell anyone. They hid the book and left. Another puppet, the same gender as the child participant, but not assigned to either group, called Siri then bribed children with up to five stickers to tell the secret. What would it take to get them to give up the book’s location?


Four puppets. Image from Misch et al., 2016


Female Siri, with her sticker bribes, that were revealed sequentially. Image from Misch et al., 2016

The findings showed that 61% of the children kept the secret, in spite of Siri’s bribes (and the last heart-shaped, larger sticker on offer). More importantly, for developmental psychology,  more children, aged either 4 or 5 years, chose to keep the secret when they were urged to do so by puppets in their own group, as opposed to the other colour group. Thus, according to the researchers, children as young as 4 years will make a sacrifice for group loyalty.  This study is simply yet beautifully designed, with a clean-cut and striking finding, building on past research that asked children to evaluate group members, towards assessing their behaviour as a group member. But what exactly does it show? And what does it mean for our understanding of children’s tendency towards group loyalty?




The authors note that the children had only joined the group minutes before being asked to keep the secret. The effect of minimal groups has been well-documented in children and adults alike (see Diehl, 1990 and Dunham et al., 2011). My repeated critique of such studies in children is that according to Tajfel et al.’s (1971) definition of a minimal group – one doesn’t ever see other group members – either from the ingroup or the outgroup. Yet one does meet group members in the current study. Thus, one doesn’t know (for certain) whether it is the gender / hair colour / voice etc. of the puppet, rather than their scarf that the child is evaluating. That said the yellow versus green group difference remains. And along with the authors, I’d ask: what about real groups? I’d also ask, what about “just-joined” status? Tajfel (1978) noted that those on the edge might be very ready to get their new group to see them  as fully supportive group members. Is it this, rather than loyalty that is driving the effect seen where the puppets were from the ingroup?

The Procedure to this study was clearly carefully thought through. It was important that the children were first introduced to the puppets, an attempt was made to ensure that they would treat the puppets as fellow children (the extent to which this is the case rather than the situation being seen as pretend play is debatable – but pretend play is a whole other research area), and the illusion of a secret hiding place for the puppets’ book was maintained. But what about the book?   We’re told it contains writing (which presumably the children would struggle with: do the children assume the puppets can read?) but not about the information in it. Would the game change if the yellow group and the green group were in competition, and the book contained the winning strategies? Telling then could have serious implications (depending on who Siri talks to: does she know members of the yellow or green groups?) And what is the relation between the yellow and green groups? And of course – the children were told the secret minutes after joining: maybe the secret wasn’t that much of a secret after all. One would expect stronger effects if the groups were pitted against each other – and if the secreted item had real value.

Talking of value leads me to ask about cost. The children in this study had to make a sacrifice – as the authors note – in foregoing the stickers. In doing so, they were giving up something that they never had. One could potentially make the effect stronger by raising the stakes. What if, instead of gaining something from telling, the child lost something for not telling – something that they already had in their possession?  What if they lost resources belonging to their own group? Would that cost be worth it in terms of the way they are seen by their ingroup? How would their ingroup value their loyalty? How would they view those who are disloyal? And following from this, and from the work of Rutland and colleagues showing that children will bully for the sake of group membership: what would happen if moral and social questions collided? If the child were asked to keep a secret for the ingroup (or the outgroup) that helped that group to cheat in some way?

Perhaps, for understanding proclivity for group loyalty, the most important question is why  children chose not to tell. The researchers did ask this – but unfortunately their findings were relegated to the “online supplementary material.”. Here, it is reported that children told the secret because “Siri wanted to know”, because “I  wanted the stickers”, because “I wanted to”, because “there was only writing in the book” – or they didn’t know. Refusing to tell was down to the fact that “I was not allowed to,” because “the others asked me not to tell it”, because “it was a secret”, or because “I didn’t want to tell”, or because they didn’t know. This information wasn’t broken down by age group or by which group the child was being (dis)loyal to. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that it is only upon refusal that the children defer to group loyalty (the puppets asked them not to tell), while other responses concern individual motives and understanding (deference to an individual, wanting the stickers,the special status of secrets). This difference is worthy of further investigation: what reasons do children give for (dis)loyalty? More specifically, does disloyalty occur only when it is self-serving or in response to an individual request? Would children pass on the secret to a fellow in-group puppet? And is the special status of secrets only retained when speaking to non-ingroup members?

So, this was one of the first studies to look at such young children’s understanding of group loyalty: not just to ask them to evaluate group members, but to look at their behaviour as a group member. It showed that children had awareness of the nature of secrets, of their choice to tell or keep that secret, and for whom they were keeping that secret. And, as with the best of research, there is now a multitude of questions remaining.  What about morality?  What is the extent of the children’s loyalty? How does thischange according to the group and the secret in question? Children’s loyalty, and their reasoning surrounding it, is indeed a rich area of research.






2 thoughts on “Paper Review: Keeping secrets: Young children and group loyalty

  1. This is indeed an interesting study. I would like some clarification about the study. Did the children in the groups know each other beforehand? Were the children from the same socio-economic background and culture? Were the puppets used for each group matched for gender and culture? I also think it will be interesting to carry out follow up studies with these children to see if their ideas and views on loyalty change with age. As you say, an interesting, well thought out study that has just scratched the surface of an interesting topic.

    • Hi Tim,

      The children were tested individually – I think from the same nursery – but whether they knew each other shouldn’t matter… Puppets were matched to gender…don’t know about culture.
      I think there will be follow ups. Harriet Over is one to watch 🙂


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