Studies Say We Learn to Fib While Young

Would you eat a chicken's foot, toes and all?

Chances are you would, under the right circumstances.

That's because you were taught how to lie at a very early age, and you've been honing that skill ever since. We lie about all sorts of things, usually so we won't hurt someone else's feelings, and many of us have developed strong inhibitions to keep us from being socially unacceptable.

Otherwise, we're likely to tell the truth and blurt out that the chicken's foot that was just served to us by a nice Chinese lady is "bloody revolting," says psychologist Bill von Hippel of the University of New South Wales in Australia. And we'll do it even if she has just informed us that it's her favorite dish, and a delicacy in her native land.

That social blunder makes us an oaf, unable to tell a little white lie that would have spared her feelings.

And it's all because we didn't learn the lessons that mom taught us at a very early age. If you're going to get along in this old world, you've got to know how to lie.

But not to worry. Both studies indicate that we learned that well, and many of us would down that chicken's foot like it was a Big Mac, if the social situation called for it.

In the interest of full disclosure, however, let me state for the record that I would flunk that test in a heartbeat.

Both studies were published in recent issues of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.

Children's 'Effortful Control'

The first study is one of several recent reports showing that we were taught how to lie while we were very young, usually by those closest to us, like mom and dad, and granny. Don't hurt Aunt Gertrude's feelings by telling her you wanted a red car, not a book. Grin and bear it.

But the researchers wanted to take that a step further and see if children who are conditioned to put more effort into controlling their emotions are actually better at it than those who aren't. Psychologists have a term for it that is so hard to say it's, well, disgusting. It's called "effortful control."

Some 62 children, ranging from 3 to 5 years old, were tested to see which ones were better at "effortful control." They were given a present they either liked or hated, then given a tedious chore, like drawing a line at a painstakingly slow pace. Meanwhile, cameras recorded their facial expressions and researchers evaluated their reactions, and their ability to draw that stupid line, even if they were just given a turkey of a gift.

As expected, the children who could put out more effort were better at hiding their emotions than those who were not in full control.

But unexpectedly, there was no significant difference between boys and girls. And the results also show that kids learn fast.

"It is notable that there was considerable improvement in effortful control across even such a small age range,'' according to the report. The lead author is Jessica E. Kieras of the University of Oregon.

That's significant, the researchers conclude, because "effortful control is an especially important component of temperament because it allows children to override natural emotional reactions to facilitate social interaction." In other words, try a little harder to grin and say thanks.

But back to that chicken's foot.

Fibs vs. Faux Pas

Hippel lined up 71 undergraduates, none of them Asian, and told them they were going to study the impact of different food chemicals on memory. Of course, that was a big fat lie. What they were really going to study was "verbal and nonverbal blurting."

The participants were given several tests to determine which ones were more socially inhibited, or which ones could keep their emotions in check so they could avoid a socially unacceptable blunder.

They were then divided into two groups. One was greeted by a pleasant Chinese lady who told them they were lucky. They were going to taste what many regard as the national dish of China, and her personal favorite. The other group was greeted by a Caucasian lady who told them simply that they were going to eat a Chinese dish.

"In both conditions, the experimenter then placed a container in close proximity to the participants' faces and opened it to clearly reveal a chicken foot. Participants' facial reactions and utterances were recorded by a hidden video camera.

"At this point, some participants expressed a desire not to eat the chicken foot," the study says.

But surprisingly, many of them did eat it, toes and all. Especially those in the group served by the Chinese lady.

"Participants were more likely to eat the foot when the experimenter was Chinese (52.6 percent) than when she was white (27.3 percent)," the study says.

But there's more. Some participants were also subjected to tests that left then fatigued, or distracted. And they were far more likely to blurt out an inappropriate response to the meal, even if served by the Chinese lady.

Result: We're more likely to blow it if we're distracted, or tired, because our inhibitions are less in check.

Or as Hippel puts it, we're more likely to put our own foot in mouth, not the chicken's, if we're stressed.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.