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Learning to Lie

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This experiment was not just a test to see if children cheat and lie under temptation. It was also designed to test a child’s ability to extend a lie, offering plausible explanations and avoiding what the scientists call “leakage”—inconsistencies that reveal the lie for what it is. Nick’s whiffs at covering up his lie would be scored later by coders who watched the videotape. So Arruda accepted without question the fact that soccer balls play Beethoven when they’re kicked and gave Nick his prize. He was thrilled.

Seventy-six percent of kids Nick’s age take the chance to peek during the game, and when asked if they peeked, 95 percent lie about it.

But sometimes the researcher will read the child a short storybook before she asks about the peeking. One story read aloud is The Boy Who Cried Wolf—the version in which both the boy and the sheep get eaten because of his repeated lies. Alternatively, they read George Washington and the Cherry Tree, in which young George confesses to his father that he chopped down the prized tree with his new hatchet. The story ends with his father’s reply: “George, I’m glad that you cut down the tree after all. Hearing you tell the truth instead of a lie is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees.”

Now, which story do you think reduced lying more? When we surveyed 1,300 people, 75 percent thought The Boy Who Cried Wolf would work better. However, this famous fable actually did not cut down lying at all in Talwar’s experiments. In fact, after hearing the story, kids lied even a little more than normal. Meanwhile, hearing George Washington and the Cherry Tree—even when Washington was replaced with a nondescript character, eliminating the potential that his iconic celebrity might influence older kids—reduced lying a sizable 43 percent in kids. Although most kids lied in the control situation, the majority hearing George Washington told the truth.

Encouraged to tell so many white lies and hearing so many others, children get comfortable with being disingenuous. Insincerity becomes a daily occurrence.

The shepherd boy ends up suffering the ultimate punishment, but the fact that lies get punished is not news to children. Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts children from learning how their lies affect others. In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age—learning to get caught less often.

Ultimately, it’s not fairy tales that stop kids from lying—it’s the process of socialization. But the wisdom in The Cherry Tree applies: According to Talwar, parents need to teach kids the worth of honesty, just like George Washington’s father did, as much as they need to say that lying is wrong.

The most disturbing reason children lie is that parents teach them to. According to Talwar, they learn it from us. “We don’t explicitly tell them to lie, but they see us do it. They see us tell the telemarketer, ‘I’m just a guest here.’ They see us boast and lie to smooth social relationships.”

Consider how we expect a child to act when he opens a gift he doesn’t like. We instruct him to swallow all his honest reactions and put on a polite smile. Talwar runs an experiment where children play games to win a present, but when they finally receive the present, it’s a lousy bar of soap. After giving the kids a moment to overcome the shock, a researcher asks them how they like it. About a quarter of preschoolers can lie that they like the gift—by elementary school, about half. Telling this lie makes them extremely uncomfortable, especially when pressed to offer a few reasons why they like the bar of soap. Kids who shouted with glee when they won the Peeking Game suddenly mumble quietly and fidget.

Meanwhile, the child’s parent usually cheers when the child comes up with the white lie. “Often, the parents are proud that their kids are ‘polite’—they don’t see it as lying,” Talwar remarks. She’s regularly amazed at parents’ seeming inability to recognize that white lies are still lies.

When adults are asked to keep diaries of their own lies, they admit to about one lie per every five social interactions, which works out to one per day, on average. The vast majority of these lies are white lies, lies to protect yourself or others, like telling the guy at work who brought in his wife’s muffins that they taste great or saying, “Of course this is my natural hair color.”

Encouraged to tell so many white lies and hearing so many others, children gradually get comfortable with being disingenuous. Insincerity becomes, literally, a daily occurrence. They learn that honesty only creates conflict, and dishonesty is an easy way to avoid conflict. And while they don’t confuse white-lie situations with lying to cover their misdeeds, they bring this emotional groundwork from one circumstance to the other. It becomes easier, psychologically, to lie to a parent. So if the parent says, “Where did you get these Pokémon cards?! I told you, you’re not allowed to waste your allowance on Pokémon cards!” this may feel to the child very much like a white-lie scenario—he can make his father feel better by telling him the cards were extras from a friend.


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