It may be hard to believe, but for young kids, lying is hard. It requires that they know what is truthful and what is false and be able to cast a different story and then sell it as reality. They have to understand that another person thinks differently than they do, and that they can trick that person into believing something other than the truth.
Before age three, kids can’t really do this. But a team of researchers has found that soon after, kids can develop this skill pretty quickly. And some kids are real naturals, notably those with a strong ability to control their emotions and to see things from another person’s point of view.
This is an unnerving idea. Of course we want our kids to cultivate a sense of self-control and empathy. We do not, however, want our kids growing up to be Bernie Madoff.
The study, published in Developmental Science, asked 84 three-year-olds to play a simple game in their preschool in an eastern city in China, 10 times a day for 10 days straight (excluding weekends) to test how quickly they would learn to lie.
On day one, kids picked their favorite treat from a basket. The first game was friendly—no lying. The experimenter hid the treat in one of two cups and the child had to guess where it was. If the kid guessed correctly, he/she got the treat. If the child guessed incorrectly, the kid was told he/she lost and the experimenter got the goodies.
After the warm up, the game changed. It was then up to the child to hide the treat. The experimenter would close her eyes, let the child conceal the treat and then ask under which cup the candy was hidden. The child was told only this: If the experimenter found the treat, she kept it; if she failed to find it, the child got to keep it.
On average, kids deceived only 12% of the 10 trials on the first day (far below the 50% level if left to random chance). On the second day, their mean deception score reached the 50% chance level and by the fourth day, they were lying during 64% of the trials. By day 10, the kids had smartened up and were deceiving the experimenter 84% of the time. Higher deception scores were associated with higher executive function skills (the skills that allow us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle various tasks) and higher scores on a test of theory of mind (the ability to see things from the perspective of others).
Masterful little liars
The interesting part was not that kids figured out how to game the system to get the candy, which seems intuitive. It was that the kids fell into “groupings”, with a sort of master class of little liars cropping up. The researchers pinpointed three groups: a fast discovery group, an intermediate discovery group, and a slow discovery set.
In the first set of trials, the fast group deceived the experimenter 35% of the time and got the treat, compared to none in the other two groups. By day two, and thereafter, they lied to get the treat 100% of the time.
None in the intermediate group deceived right away, but by day four, they were deceiving 67% of the time, lying to get the treat. By day eight, their deception scores were perfect (100%).
The last group showed small gains in deception over the 10 days, but even by the end—when the others were mastering the game with 100% lies and candy—the slow group only lied 41% of the time.
The researchers found that the fast group had a few things in common: higher levels of executive function and higher scores on a test of theory of mind. In other words, the kids who had the skills we all want our kids to have were the most efficient at lying to get what they wanted.
“Once children reach a necessary level, they can discover deception virtually overnight (as was the case of the fast discovery group), or in just a few days (as was the case with the intermediate discovery group),” the authors wrote.
We already know that lying is related to intelligence. The study added to existing research by homing in on the specific cognitive and social skills of fast-learning liars.
Of course, the study has some limitations. The sample size was small: The researchers tested 100 kids, with 82 finishing the study. And it only focused on lying for personal gain, rather than prosocial lying, which is a subtler variety of lie that kids might use when, for example, they receive a gift they hate or already own, but have the wherewithal to not say so.
Knowing when to lie
Still, it’s a ripe area for research, considering that lying for personal gain is an endemic and destructive part of modern life (see: global financial crisis, political scandals, fake news, and so on). And as schools, universities, and jobs become more globally competitive, type-A parents and their offspring inevitably breed a looking-out-for-number-one mentality.
“By exposing young children to a competitive situation, many quickly and spontaneously discovered deception as a viable strategy for personal gain,” the authors wrote.
Balancing truth and tact is also a difficult thing to teach young kids. Research shows that kids whose parents taught them that that lying is sometimes acceptable told significantly more lies to protect themselves than those who were taught that lying is never acceptable.
But teaching a child to “always tell the truth” can be tricky. You don’t want your kid announcing that she hates hugging her grandmother, or finds a new kid in class very annoying. The question is the same for our kids as it is for our leaders: How do we learn when it’s right to conceal information, and when to expose the truth?