Sweet Little Liars

Learning to lie is a normal part of the developmental process, say researchers.

Montreal, CANADA, April 1, 2008— -- 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.

"Even adults would maybe peek, it's a really tempting situation," Talwar said. "We create that situation because then they can choose whether they confess up to doing it or conceal and lie about doing it."

It is a fascinating experiment, especially considering that the researchers aren't all that honest themselves, telling the kids that they "have to get the phone" as an excuse to exit the room, and then watching the parents who secretly watch their children lie.

Lea, 4, and Aleko, 6, were two recent subjects. Their dad, John, is a police officer specializing in interrogation.

Lea goes first, and chooses to peek.

But when asked if she peeked, she tells the truth, nodding yes.

That has less to do with the fact that her dad is a cop than it does with the fact that she's only four. Most kids that young don't yet know how to lie. They have to learn how to do it.

Learning to Lie

"You have to be able to remember everything you've said before so you keep consistency in your lie, you can't be caught out," Talwar said. "You have to be able to think, 'Okay, so they think that I did this, therefore they're going to expect my answers to be along these lines' so they have to keep a representation of not only what they really did, but what the other person thinks they did and what that person's expectations would be … it requires a lot of mental flexibility."

Aleko, Lea's brother, peeks too. But when asked he knows he's on the verge of getting caught and figures it's better to not say anything. It's not quite a lie, but he's definitely weighing his options: lie or confess. In the end he chooses to plead the 5th.

"We have to be careful that we don't say 'Oh, it's terrible that the child lies' because adults are doing it too. And it's an adult behavior more so than a childhood behavior. Children are actually more likely to be blunt truth tellers compared to adults," Talwar said. "But the other thing is that children often are picking up on the little lies that we're telling."

Aleko and Lea's father John says lying is a learned behavior. "I think for the most part that kids, you know, they have that innocence and they slowly lose that because of us and everything is a learned behavior and you try and teach them as best as you can," he said.

So what's a parent to do, especially, as Talwar's researcher Arruda pointed out, "when kids realize that they're about to get in trouble and they're going to get punished for whatever they have done, they're more likely to lie."

Talwar sympathizes with concerned parents who tend to react emotionally when their children lie, but emphasized that it's a natural part of development and suggested that families discuss the issue calmly and rationally.

And, perhaps most importantly, "If you want them to be telling the truth then it's important that you're not turning around and lying all over the place as well," she said.