Around Age Seven, Kids Lie More to Spare Others' Feelings

Young kids are unaware of such social constructs as “pleasantries” and “lying.” But when do we start bending the truth to spare someone else's feelings?

Kids have no filter when it comes to speaking their minds. They see something; they say something. It seems like they're unaware of such social constructs as “pleasantries” and “lying.” But when do we start bending the truth to spare someone else's feelings?


Melissa Dahl from NYMag writes that researchers Felix Warneken and Emily Orlins from Harvard wanted to know. So, they gathered a group of about 80 kids, five-year-olds, seven- and eight-year-olds, and 10- and 11-year-olds. To start, they asked the kids to sort four drawings into “good” and “bad” piles. (The images were drawn to be purposefully good or bad).

After sorting, an experimenter would come over to the child and either lament to him or her how sad she was because she wasn't any good at drawing or she would confess to not being any good at drawing, but that she was at peace with it. The experimenter would then show the child her drawing and ask which pile it belonged in.

The older kids tended to spare the sad experimenter's feelings with a white lie, and say the drawing belonged in the “good” pile. The five-year-olds were almost split with 57 percent lying to the sad experimenter, whereas 71 and 75 percent of seven- to eight- and 10- to 11-year-olds lied. Of the kids that didn't lie, not all of them were harsh critics; some of them told the experimenter that the drawing was not good, but that she should, "Keep practicing!" or telling her, "It's not bad, it's modern!"

With the experimenter who was at peace with her horrible drawing skills, 29, 29, and 8 percent of the children in these three age groups, respectively, lied.

The researchers write:

“Results showed that after modelling, children from all age groups were significantly more likely to use white lies in the Sad condition than in the Neutral condition. Taken together, these results show that children are attentive to another person's affective states when choosing whether to tell a white lie or tell the truth.”

Read more at NYMag.

Photo credit: Henrique Pinto/Flickr

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