Research out of the University of Toronto suggests that there is a link between a child’s ability to lie and his social success in the future.
Kang Lee, the director of the Child Developmental Research Group at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says when parents discover that their child is lying they should celebrate the child’s arrival at a critical stage in his or her life.
After 20 years of studying the why and how of children’s lying, Lee has found that by the age of two, approximately 30% of children are doing a pretty good job of pulling off a credible lie. At three, roughly 50% are capable of coming up with a winning lie. By four, about 80% are top-notch liars.
In fact, says Lee, children who do not become proficient at lying are likely to have problems in the future, writes Nicola Luksic for CBC News Canada.
“These children will tend to tell lies more frequently and they can be easily spotted,” says Lee, adding that this deficit makes socializing much more difficult. “The lack of social savvy can make a person develop abnormally.”
Perfecting a convincing lie is a marker for two significant milestones in the development of a child. One is the ability to understand that the thoughts going on in the child’s mind are different from those that are in another person’s mind. This skill is known as “theory-of-mind.”
The second is the facility with which a child regulates her behavior and actions, also known as “executive functioning.” If a child has not met these two signs, there is a tendency to lie unsuccessfully and often.
“Kids who develop typically tend to tell good lies,” says Lee, adding that these “good” lies are so nicely crafted, even adults often can’t tell they’re lying.”
Lee adds that there are pro-social reasons to lie. For example, thanking someone who knitted a sweater for you that you think is atrocious is a social necessity.
David Livingstone Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of New England and author of “Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind,” says we have a universal investment in being dishonest.
He points to the recent dismissal of NBC news anchor Brian Williams. Over the course of a decade, Williams told a story about being in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003 that was the target of a shooting. Smith says this is a case of “misremembering,” which is is easy to do so when the use of a lie can improve a person’s status.
Although Dr. Lee knew that children who are good at theory-of-mind assignments are also better at lying, he did not know if lying increases a child’s ability to guess what others are thinking. Telling fibs to retrieve feedback from adults would help determine their mental states, reports The Wall Street Journal.
But it could also be that if a child is taught to imagine what is in another person’s mind, that young person becomes better at making up untrue stories.
Lee’s team tried an experiment that was comprised of reading several favorite stories that centered on the importance of honesty. From Pinochio to The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the only story that seemed to have any calculable effect was about George Washington and the Cherry Tree, reports Lizzy Hill of SheKnows Canada.
“After being read this story, children were more likely to tell the truth than if read any of the other stories,” explain the researchers.
The scientists theorized that instead of trying to scare the children, a story that centered on the positive repercussions of telling the truth was more effective at influencing their character.