Impact Awards
2023 Insight Award winner: Kang Lee

Kang Lee is a world-leading authority on childhood dishonesty—and that’s the truth.

Lee’s work in this area began 30 years ago, when he was a young researcher new to Canada. He identified a “big gap in the literature” around the development of moral behaviour and deception.

“Lying was considered by philosophers to be something universally condemned,” Lee said. “I wanted to know whether or not that’s scientifically true.”

Lee found early support for his work from SSHRC, which awarded him with a postdoctoral fellowship in 1994 and set him on “a very nice trajectory,” he said.

Now a University of Toronto professor at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Lee studies children’s cognitive development, with an emphasis on how children learn to tell lies and cheat across social and cultural environments. He uses behavioural, computational and neuroimaging methodologies.

Lee’s findings have challenged our assumptions about lying and revolutionized our understanding of what it means when children tell lies. The picture is more nuanced than many might think. For example, Lee’s research has revealed that by age 4 most children lie even though they know that lying is wrong. He has also found that earlier and more sophisticated lying is associated with more advanced executive functioning and theory of mind, whereas delays in lying can be indicators of cognitive developmental deficits.

Lee’s research was also the first to systematically examine how to promote honesty in children. He found explicitly teaching children about the moral implications of lying is ineffective, and confronting children after they are caught lying is counterproductive, because it leads them to deceive in more covert and sophisticated ways. Instead, he learned asking children to promise to tell the truth is effective.

Lee’s insights have found a wide audience, including in a TED Talk viewed more than 14 million times. His body of work includes over 300 publications and 11 patents, and has been highlighted in The New York Times; The Washington Post; CNN; and several major science documentaries, including Nature of Things: Born to be Good? (CBC), Babies (Netflix) and Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (Revelations Entertainment).

What Lee is most proud of, though, is the far-reaching legal and clinical applications he hadn’t anticipated when he started down this academic path. For example, in 2006, criminal courts across Canada switched to a new procedure developed by Lee’s lab when they admit children under 14 to testify as witnesses. An essential component of this procedure is having the child promise to tell the truth, because Lee has identified it as an effective way to promote truth-telling—giving the courts more confidence in younger witnesses.

“I’m super proud of that accomplishment,” Lee said. It has allowed thousands of child witnesses to testify in court, providing critical testimony for many crimes involving children.

A second example is how Lee’s findings have transformed the diagnosis and treatment of children with conduct problems. Instead of focusing on moral teaching or confronting children with their moral failings, his work shines a light on the value of focusing on cognitive skills by teaching emotional regulation and problem-solving skills. Results from the Stop Now and Plan (SNAP) program at the Child Development Institute, an accredited children’s mental health agency in Toronto, has found this approach to be highly effective in reducing both disruptive behaviours in the short term, and involvement with the criminal justice system in the long term.

Lee is also the co-inventor of a contactless imaging methodology called transdermal optical imaging (TOI). It uses videos captured by conventional cameras, such as smartphones, to reveal subtle blood flow changes and measure a person’s psychological (e.g., stress, emotions, lies) and physiological (e.g., heart rate, breathing, blood pressure) changes in a variety of situations.

Winning the SSHRC Impact Award in the Insight category is “gratifying” said Lee. “I personally really feel this award is a recognition of my team’s work, so I feel very happy for all of us.”

In the last five years, Lee has turned his eye toward academic cheating, which has become a bigger problem for universities with the availability of tools such as artificial intelligence.

“Once again, there have been very few studies done on cheating behaviours in children,” Lee said.

What he’s seen so far tells him that the roots of academic cheating are in early development, and that early intervention to teach kids the importance of academic integrity could have a long-lasting impact.

“That’s what I’ll be working on the next 30 years,” he said.

About the award

The annual Impact Awards recognize the highest achievements in SSHRC-funded research, knowledge mobilization and scholarship, as well as the highest achievements resulting from a SSHRC fellowship awarded.

SSHRC’s Insight Award recognizes outstanding achievement by an individual or team whose project has made a significant contribution to knowledge and understanding about people, societies and the world.

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