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.
Want to predict someone's next move, or know if someone is telling you a lie? Learn to read body language like a poker pro.
A good poker face can win you a fortune or help you sell a difficult lie, but that term might be leading us all astray. For poker champ Liv Boeree, calling someone's bluff isn't about their face at all, it's often much more about their body as a whole—and one part in particular. "The feet are often the most reliable thing to look at on your opponent because they might be completely stoic in their face but their feet are bouncing around," she says. We're all hyper aware of our faces as a primary point of communication, but our bodies are speaking more loudly than we may realize. Typically, "the lower down on the body that you're looking at, the more reliable the information," she says. Keep in mind, reading body language is an art not a science, but thanks to Boeree's years of experience at the poker table she highlights some classic behaviors of bluffers, and reliable strategies for those who want to call them out. Find more from Liv Boeree at www.livboeree.com.
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."
A new study suggests the brain gets more desensitized to lying with each lie you tell.
A new study just published in the journal Nature Neuroscience proposes that with each falsehood told, the negative emotions associated with lying become a little bit fainter, leading the brain to become increasingly desensitized to lying. This finding may explain, in part, how someone caught in a small lie keeps telling bigger and bigger whoppers to avoid being found out.
Senior author of the study, Tali Sharot, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, spoke to New York Times about the findings. Scanning subjects' brains using MRIs, the researchers saw that activity in the amygdala — the area associated with emotion — decreased with each lie. Interestingly, the amount by which it decreased turned out to be a reliable predictor of the size of the subject's next lie.
“Think about it like perfume," Sharot told the Times. “You buy a new perfume, and it smells strongly. A few days later, it smells less. And a month later, you don't smell it at all."
MRIs can't discern the nature of the emotions in the amygdala, only that some emotion is getting weaker. As Sharot has noted, “We know for sure it's related to lying. Whether it's their negative emotional reaction, that's only speculation, based on the parts of the brain we looked at."
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It's been “really, really difficult to characterize the neural processes that underlie purposeful lying," according to neuroscience professor Christian Ruff, a neurology professor at the University of Zurich, who is not involved in the new study. The problem is that when someone is told to lie by a researcher, it's a socially approved act that lacks the illicit emotional freight of a lie told in life.
The lead scientist for the study was then-doctoral student Neil Garrett at University College London. Researchers devised a few situations in which 80 primarily adult subjects could choose for themselves whether to lie to a partner or not. Each subject was instructed to assist a partner in guessing the number of pennies in a jar only the subject could see. They would do this providing clues. (Each partner covertly shared the clues with the researchers so they knew when a subject was lying.)
In one variation, some of the subjects were given a financial incentive to trick their a partner into guessing high — the higher the guess, the more money the subject was paid. Their partners, on the other hand, got paid more for guessing accurately, so it was in their interest to try and compensate for any perceived dishonesty from the subject.
In another test, subjects and their partners were paid more for mutually overestimating the penny count. In yet another, partners would get paid more for overestimating while the subject was paid for guiding their partner to an accurate figure.
The reaction to the study's methodology from the scientific community has been positive so far, though given the slippery nature of lying, the findings will need to be supported by additional studies.
If the lying game has piqued your interest, here's how to detect when someone is telling a lie, with psychologist Paul Ekman: