A new study finds that casually fibbing to children results in lifelong issues.
- For simplicity and speed, parents may employ untruths as conversation-enders and to coerce desirable behavior using empty threats.
- Telling kids not to lie while modeling contrary behavior is, not surprisingly, a problem.
- Lying as an adult is just one of the issues lied-to children exhibit as grownups.
Let's set aside the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny for a few moments. There are countless other — typically well-intentioned — daily lies that a parent may tell a child, including empty threats to get them to behave, over-simplification of tricky questions, and so on. A new psychology study led by Setoh Peipei of Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, however, finds a correlation between being lied to in childhood and lying more as an adult, something that other research has shown becomes easier and easier over time. It's also associated with other problematic behaviors such as rule-breaking, aggression, and intrusiveness.
Why parents lie
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The 24/7 demands of parenting can be relentless, and it's easy to understand why an exhausted Mom or Dad may be attracted to shortcuts that seem to save time and obviate the need for complicated explanations that would require maturity to grasp. There are lots of these:
- "If you don't come right now, I'm going to leave you in this store."
- "No TV for the rest of the week if you don't do your homework now."
- "Mommy/Daddy will always be here."
- Even the classic, no-one-knows-why-it-works-so-well, "I'm counting: 1…2…" It's inherently a bluff. Most kids never find out what would happen at 3. Few parents know, either.
Nonetheless, trust shifts once a child sees that actually you'll wait for them to come and not abandon them in the store, and the implicit message is ultimately, "I tell you never to lie, but I do it to you all the time."
"Authority assertion over children is a form of psychological intrusiveness," points out Setoh, "which may undermine children's sense of autonomy and convey rejection, ultimately undermining children's emotional well-being. Future research should examine the nature of the lies and goals of the parents so that researchers can suggest what kind of lies to avoid, and what kind of truth-telling parents should engage in."
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The study published in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology was a collaboration between Setoh and researchers from University of Toronto in Canada, University of California, San Diego in the U.S., and Zhejiang Normal University in China.
The subjects were 379 young adults from Singapore who responded to questions posed in online surveys:
- The subjects were asked if their parents ever lied to them about four particular subjects: eating, leaving or staying, misbehavior, or money.
- They were next queried about how often they lied as adults to their parents about activities, if they exaggerated about events, or if they told lies intended to benefit others.
- Finally, the subjects filled out two questionnaires self-reporting their own psychosocial maladjustments and tendency to act selfishly or impulsively.
The results may be taken with a few caveats. First, self-reporting can be unreliable. Second, while the subjects' answers show a correlation between parental lying and individuals' behaviors, it's just that, a correlation that may or may not indicate the true cause of their problems. Finally, Setoh suggests a more complete picture of the mechanisms at play could be gained from a study that involves both young adults and their parents.
How to change
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Setoh tells NTU, "Parents should be aware of these potential downstream implications and consider alternatives to lying, such as acknowledging children's feelings, giving information so children know what to expect, offering choices and problem-solving together to elicit good behavior from children."
To respond effectively, honestly, and relatively easily to difficult inquiries, answer the question being asked and stop. A child questioning you about such topics will never ask, "Tell me all about sex," for example, but more likely, "Did I live in your tummy?" or "How did I get in there?" By honestly answering the question being asked, you don't have to lie, and you're unlikely to be met with any difficult follow-up questions since the child needs time to absorb and process the new information. They may get back to you later with a follow-up, of course, at which point you do the same thing. Few people asking what time it is want to know how to build a clock.
Elitism has come under fire since the recent wave of populist politics. But when we don't listen to experts, we end up listening to politicians' lies, says Richard Dawkins.
You want expert pilots to fly your planes, top doctors to perform your surgeries, the finest musicians in your orchestra, and for the same reason, you should want experts leading the nation, says Richard Dawkins. There has been a backlash against expert knowledge amid the rising wave of populist politics, but Dawkins doesn't think elitism is the dirty word that people are implying. He contends that not all opinions are equal, and that the leaders of the UK were profoundly misguided in allowing a referendum on Brexit to occur. No average citizen—not even Dawkins himself—was fit to decide on whether to leave a federation of states with so much economic and political importance, and decades of complex history attached to it. And much like the 2016 US presidential election, it was a political movement fueled by misinformation. A representative democracy is one thing, where citizens entrust experts to make national and local decisions, but a referendum democracy seems to Dawkins extremely ill-advised, particularly given that the top Google search in the UK the day after the Brexit vote was 'What is the European Union?'. Dawkins isn't shy: he's an elitist, but a rational one. He affirms he would never want a world where your IQ determines how many votes you get, but he sees the clear benefit of making political decisions based on knowledge rather than emotion or misinformation, deliberate or otherwise. Richard Dawkins' newest book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.
A recent study shows that children just 3 years of age learn how to deceive others for personal gain when exposed to competitive games.
Most children have the cognitive abilities needed for lying by the time they're 3 1/2 years old. However, a recent study published in the journal Developmental Science shows that kids even younger than that can quickly and spontaneously learn to lie when they're exposed to competitive games.
For the study, researchers had 3-year-olds play a zero-sum game with a researcher 10 times over 10 days. The game was a form of hide and seek, with the child acting as hider and researcher acting as seeker. While the researcher covered her eyes, the child hid a treat under one of two cups. The researcher would then uncover her eyes and ask the child which cup the treat was under. If the child answered correctly, the researcher would lift the cup and take the treat for herself. But if the child lied, he would get to keep the treat for himself.
During the first sessions, almost none of the children attempted to deceive the researchers. But over the course of the study, the children began to realize that lying would result in personal gain.
"Not all children figured out how to deceive at the same rate," said study author Gail Heyman. "At one extreme, some figured it out on the first day; at the other extreme, some were consistently losing the game even at the end of the 10 days."
The researchers found a relationship between the children's cognitive abilities and their ability to lie.
"One of these skills – what psychologists call theory of mind is the ability to understand that others don’t necessarily know what you know," said Heyman. "This skill is needed because when children lie they intentionally communicate information that differs from what they themselves believe. Another one of these skills, cognitive control, allows people to stop themselves from blurting out the truth when they try to lie. The children who figured out how to deceive the most quickly had the highest levels of both of these skills."
Competitive games, it seems, can not only help children discover the power of deceit at a remarkably young age, they can actually help children formulate the concept of deceit itself. The researchers note that learning to employ simple lies is just the beginning of a child's relationship with the concept of deceit – one that grows more sophisticated with time.
How children interpret the morality of lying
A 2016 study examined the ways in which children interpret the morality of various types of deception – white lies, false confessions. The results showed that younger children tend to classify all types of lying as bad, while children ages 10 through 12 saw lying as a morally complicated act.
"The older they are, the more interested children are in the consequences of these actions," said study coauthor Shanna Mary Williams. "They are also more able to start looking at the intentions behind the speech."
“We love, as a culture, to attack messengers when the message is something that makes us feel uncomfortable,” says journalist Wesley Lowery.
It’s no coincidence, says Wesley Lowery, that freedom of the press was one of the first things that the U.S. founders enshrined in the Constitution. It was people of that time’s ability to report on and openly discuss their situation that sparked the revolution. It became clear then that a free press is the ultimate safeguard for democracy.
So what happens when that press is undermined? The 2016 election was unprecedented in its bending of the truth. The emphasis on fact-checking during the debates, the clear Twitter evidence and past-interview quotes that were exhibited but still denied, and the disregard for accountability of past actions came into direct conflict with what is known to be the truth. The media was delegitimized in a very public way – there are big ramifications to that, says Lowery. He fears we are entering a post-truth age, where fact is no longer objective – one where elected officials can point-blank say their bill will do something it definitely won't, or deny something they are on record saying. The media becomes the villain in the wake of this, accused of bias – a big enough distraction for some to let the official shimmy away without repercussion.
Lowery has first-hand experience in the villainizing of the media – he was one of three journalists arrested in 2014 while covering the Ferguson protests. What the Black Lives Matter movement brings to light for him, besides the core message, is that here is a case of the media being held accountable for the actions of others. "We love, as a society, as a culture, to attack messengers when the message is something that makes us feel uncomfortable," says Lowery. "So reporters who reported on things like police shootings and race and justice became the targets because if only you could discredit them, if you could prove they had some vendetta or some bias that they were really just some liberal operative then you didn’t have to engage at all with what they were saying."
When the public stops believing that reported journalism is the truth, learns to cry "bias" as a knee-jerk reaction to bad news, and is jockeyed into a habit of mistrust and 'blaming the messenger' by elected officials, it guillotines journalism as a democratic protector.