Study Finds Kids Who Lie Well Have Better Verbal Working Memory


Parents with kids who are imaginative know that in order to explain their way out of trouble, a child can come up with some pretty skillful verbal maneuvering. Parents are often worried or annoyed when their children embellish, or outright lie, but in so doing kids are exhibiting a capable mind, say researchers.

Keeping lies straight takes considerable mental agility. Forbes’ Alice G. Walton cites a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology which has found that kids who are “good liars” also have better working memories, especially verbal memories, than their counterparts who are “bad liars.”

The study group was made up of 6- and 7-year-old children who were asked to take a trivia quiz made up of three questions that were printed on index cards. After the researcher read the question, the child answered and the card was turned over to show the answer on the back. The answer was written in a particular color and had a picture beside it.

After the scientist presented the third question, he or she left the room. The question was a fictitious one, asking the name of the kid in Spaceboy, a fake cartoon. The researcher, upon leaving, either told or did not tell the child not to look at the answer on the back of the card.

The testing was filmed, so researchers were able to see who looked at the answer. When the researcher returned, the child was asked the answer and whether he or she could guess the details on the back of the card. The good liars fibbed about the answer and the details. The bad liars lied about one of the two or about neither one of the answers.

“It takes mental effort to keep in mind what you know you did, what you think the researcher knows, and plan a way so you don’t get caught,” said study author Tracy Alloway.

Also, the videos allowed the researchers to see clear differences in the children’s responses based on their working memory skills. The kids with poor working memory would get anxious when answering, but those with good working memory even had explanations concerning how they knew the “correct” answer.

“We already know that adults lie in approximately a fifth of their social exchanges lasting 10 or more minutes,” says author Elena Hoicka, “so it’s interesting to know why some children are able to tell more porkies than others. We’ll now be looking to move the research forward to discover more about how children first learn to lie.”

Since lying is a very normal way of developing thinking skills and testing boundaries, parents can rest easy if they have little liars in the family (within reason, add the scientists).

CBS News quotes from the research team’s press statement:

“Kids who possessed better memories and could keep track of lots of information were able to successfully make and maintain a cover story for their lie.”

Dr. Elena Hoicka of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology adds that parents are not proud of their children when they lie, but there is a positive side to the action. When kids are lying well, says Hoicka, parents can know that their children are improving their thinking and possess solid memory skills.

The University of North Florida’s Dr. Tracy Alloway, who headed up the project, explains that lying is a complex social interaction and the children who were able to juggle multiple pieces of information and understand and adapt to the researcher’s perspective were displaying superior memory skills and verbal working memory.

Randee Dawn of NBC News Today references a 2014 study in Canada which found that the ability to lie was an important skill for kids in order to understand how other people think and feel. The study also noted that children are more likely to lie if they expect to be punished, but kids who were told that lying was wrong were more likely to tell the truth.