Sweet Little Liars

What if you could submit your kid to a lie detector test of sorts? Would you want to know if your child told the truth?

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have been gathering child volunteers ages 3-14 for experiments to study the role of lying in children's development. In one study kids are taken into a room, told to face the wall and not to turn around, not to peek at a toy on the table.

But when the supervising adult left the room, time after time the kids would take a look. In fact, 80 percent of the kids peeked within seconds of being alone.

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Then, when the adult returns to the room and asks if the child turned around, the kids tend to lie.

The researchers found that in 74 percent of kids ranging in age from 4 to 7 lied about it.

Lying: Part of a Child's Development

"These are not bad children, these are very typical children," said Victoria Talwar, an assistant professor at Montreal's McGill University specializing in developmental psychology. "It is a natural, normal behavior that children will occasionally tell lies."

Lying is normal, natural? According to Talwar and her team of research assistants, lying is a positive developmental milestone.

"It's a part of normal development and understanding the difference between what's true and convincing someone else of an altered truth — actually really takes a lot of intelligence to do that," said researcher Cindy Arruda.

The phrase "kids lying" instinctively sounds like a bad thing, but in the lab, the researchers view lying as an important part of social communication that builds empathy.

"The fact is that lying is not a good behavior. It's very clear in society that we don't want people to lie … on the other hand," Talwar continued, "lying is a good thing in that it is a by-product of a positive development in children. So when we see lying in children, it's actually a marker of this ability to understand someone else's perspective and what they're going through."

"All the skills that you need that are very important for positive development are skills that can be used to tell a lie. So what you have is that it really is a marker of increased cognitive sophistication in children's development and in their complexity of thought," Talwar said.

Measuring that "complexity of thought" is tricky. After all, how do you really know if a person is lying? You can't ask them if they're lying, because clearly, they could lie to you.

The Tell-Tale Toy

That's why Talwar designed an experiment where a hidden camera captures the child's behavior. The experiment starts when the kids play a simple game to win a prize. They have to face the wall and then, based on sounds they hear, they must guess what the toy is.

They might hear sirens (a police car) or crying (a baby doll). But then the researcher places a toy that does not make a noise on the table, then adds a greeting card which plays music and they leave the room. The music the children hear has absolutely nothing to do with the toy.

So if the children correctly guess what the toy is, the researchers know they're lying.

The researchers knew that only a fibber would correctly guess the toy was the cartoon character "Sponge Bob."

Knowing that there is a prize at stake, the temptation for these young kids must have been enormous.

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