Liar, liar, pants on fire, Part II: What does it take to lie?

Liar, liar, pants on fire. We are told from a young age: Lying is wrong. Lying is going to get you in trouble, even more trouble than whatever you’re lying to cover up. Pinocchio’s nose grew for a reason, boys and girls; lying does nothing for you.

Except maybe, lying is evidence of sophisticated cognitive machinery.

One of the abilities that is sometimes held up to separate humans from that other animals is theory of mind, the belief we all have that other people have minds that are different than our own: different perspectives, different emotions, different beliefs. (It’s only a “theory” we have, because we have no more direct evidence that other people have minds than we have evidence that the Chinese Room understands English).

The classic demonstration that people have a theory of mind is called the “false belief” task. Most version of this task feature a distinctive container, like a Band-aid tin or candy box, that someone has inexplicably repurposed to hold something else entirely. Show it to an adult, and they will expect candy; reveal stickers, and they will give you a look that suggests you have done something evil and/or disappointing. Ask them what someone else would think when they see the box, and the answer is obvious: they’ll think it holds whatever the box was designed to hold, just like I did.

Ask a preschooler, though, and once they know what’s in the box, they will say that everyone else will also know what’s in the box. (They’re very cute about it, though) This is interpreted as evidence that children have not yet developed a theory of mind; they can’t imagine that other people know something they don’t know.

Theory of mind is a hot topic, not least because of the way we use it in our everyday lives. One reason it is so fascinating is that many psychologists believe we need theory of mind to lie. How could we possibly try to create a false belief, without first understanding that it’s possible to have one? To lay the blame for a misdeed on a sibling or a pet, the child must at least think it’s possible to for her mother to believe it was the dog, at the same time the child knows that it was her. Right?

But some are skeptical that we lying depends on such sophisticated mental processes, based on studies like those I discussed last week, which showed even 2-year-olds could be proficient liars.

Lying might not start out as anything so grand it depends on theory of mind. Our first lies might be reflexive, unconscious self-preservation. Those denials – “What are you doing?” “Nothing!” “Did you drink the orange soda?” “No….” – may be Freudian wish fulfillment, or the closest a limited vocabulary can get to “I did it, but now I really wish I hadn’t”, or just a desperate Hail Mary. Or perhaps, it’s something another child was seen to do, because children soak up what other children do like little sponges. See an older sibling say “It wasn’t me” and get away with it, and you might blindly try your luck with the same response the next time you’re getting that maternal glare.

And imagine the child’s inner reaction the moment the trouble is avoided! Once the shock and joy of having escaped the metaphorical noose wears off, they would certainly want to figure out what happened so they can repeat the trick and avoid trouble the next time. (Because there will certainly be a next time). After trying and discarding many theories about what it was that got them off the hook – and testing those theories by attempting additional small lies – children might ultimately land on the hypothesis that Mommy doesn’t really know what I know. No eyes on the back of her head, and no knowledge about what really happened in the kitchen when the cookies went missing. And so, theory of mind is born.

Unfortunately, trying to figure out why a child is lying is no easy feat. Even if we did decide to ask them “Did you lie because you thought Mommy might believe something that was different than the truth, or just because you knew if you said yes you’d get in trouble and no was the only other answer you could give?”, we can hardly expect a preschooler to give a cogent answer. We’re left inferring what we think might be going on, and that takes you down the rabbit hole very quickly.

I have in fact spent a day immersed in one very thorough, real-world analysis of children’s lies, and been unable to come to any firm conclusions about what to think. The task the researchers undertook is impressive: they tracked two dozen preschoolers for seven months. For a month, the mothers kept careful diaries about every apparent lie their children told; then the children were given two months to grow; then the lies were tracked for another month; two more months to go; and a final month with every lie recorded. During those months of deception tracking, the researchers interviewed each mother twice to get a more complete picture of the lies. The children also completed several theory of mind tasks, including the classic false belief, so the link between theory of mind and deception could be investigated.

It turns out preschoolers are far more versatile liars than I had thought: the researchers created 14 different categories of lies, ranging from the basic “False Denial” and “False Blame”, to “False Assertions” of having permission or having done something, then on to “False Excuses” (including pretending to be injured or sick), “Bravado” (“I don’t care!”), “False Boasts” of having something too, and finally more complex “Trickery”, “False Stories” and a sweeping category of miscellaneous lies for some of the truly creative, unclassifiable deceptions.

Beyond the impressive range of children’s lies, though, this research only showed me how difficult it is to assess lies in the real world. On the one hand, most children seemed to lie in the same kind of ways whether they had theory of mind or not. All of the children who never passed a theory of mind task in the entire seven months still made false denials and false excuses; most placed false blame and made false assertions as well. There were hints of possible improvements in deception once theory of mind was in place, with more Trickery and Bravado, but with so few children being tracked there were a few declines in deception as well.

The researchers also only considered whether each child ever used a lie, not how often they lied or if there was more variety and sophistication in the lie. Perhaps children who don’t use theory of mind are lying through imitation or other learning, under very specific circumstances, while children with theory of mind tell the lies more often, and can adapt them from not just Trickery about a phone ringing but also Trickery about a minor disaster in the basement. There were also hints of a potential distinction to be made between what we might call “prompted” lies, which come in response to a question, and more “spontaneous” lies that the children seems to invent out of nowhere; prompted lies are easier to dismissed as unthinking self-preservation or learned responses, so perhaps they represent how children can lie without theory of mind; spontaneous lies seem more complex, and might require more cognitive underpinnings in place. Without a follow-up study focused on this distinction, though, it’s pure speculation.

Parents can take heart in this, at least: if your innocent little child lies, she’s not alone. And either lying is a sign of some very important cognitive machinery falling into place, or it will help that machinery get up and running. It’s small consolation when your child smiles sweetly and lies to your face, but it’s the best that psychology can offer at the moment.
Newton, P., Reddy, V., & Bull, R. (2000). Children’s everyday deception and performance on false belief tasks British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 18 (2), 297-317.


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