Are Children Good Liars?

Do all children learn to lie?  Can children with mental disabilities also lie? How effective can it be to reason with a child to tell the truth?

Well, most of us expect children to lie at some point in their life, even if it is just a white lie. According to an article in the Kingston Herald, Queen’s University has just conducted one of the first studies on lying and children with autism.

The study, which has been accepted for publication to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, was conducted by Queen’s psychology professor Beth Kelly and developmental psychology student Annie Li.  The study came up with very interesting results.

Altogether, the study tested 19 children with autism and 30 typically developing children.  It is already understood that children, in general, will tell white lies to protect the feelings of others and maintain good standing relationships.  However, it was revealed that children with autism will also tell white lies to protect others feelings and maintain relationships, but they are not good at covering up those lies like children without autism.

During the study the children with autism were told they were to receive a great gift, were then handed a bar of soap and asked if they liked their gift.  Most of the children nodded yes.  These are referred to as pro social lies told to preserve good relationships with others.  This discovery was very surprising.  Dr.  Kelly stated, “There is a notion that children with autism have difficulty appreciating the thoughts and feeling of others.  So we didn’t expect them to lie to avoid saying things that may hurt others.”

In a second phase of the study, children were given audio clues and asked to guess what hidden object was making the sounds.  Most children guessed the easy clues such as a chicken when they heard a chicken clucking . However, they were then given intentionally difficult clue such as Christmas music or an Elmo doll to test for lying.  After the sound was played, the tester left the room.  When the tester returned and asked if the child had taken a peek, both autistic and non-autistic children were equally likely to lie.  14 out of 15 autistic children who peeked said that they didn’t and 13 out of 15 typically developed children said they did not peek when they in fact did.

When the children were asked to then guess what the hidden object was, all but one of the children with autism gave the correct answer.  The interesting fact is that children without autism realized that giving a correct answer would reveal that they peeked so they were more likely to lie.   7 out of 13 of the typically developed children guessed correctly.  However, almost half pretended they did not know the correct answer by guessing something else to cover up the fact that they had lied about looking.

In a related article, “Do you Swear to Tell the Truth?” printed on October 24, 2010 in the Boston Globe, it was found that talking to your kids (typically developed children) about the morality of lying is not a good deterrent in dissuading them from lying.   This study revealed that asking a child to “promise to tell the truth”, as adults are asked in a court of law, is a much more effective tool in finding out the truth or having children recant their lies.

So next time you find a child is lying to you rather than dole out a long lecture on right and wrong just ask the child to give you their word.

Do you think that a promise is a very powerful thing? Can it be used in most people to deter lying in general?

2 responses to “Are Children Good Liars?”

  1. Russ Conte says:

    I interview and hire people for a living. There is no way that I can ask people to promise to tell the truth, and then expect that to happen. I don’t believe that will work nearly as well as what I do every day.

    When I am interviewing a candidate (virtually any candidate) and they have to correct something on the application (a very common event, for example, I ask for all addresses going back ten years, and many people leave one or more off), after they make the correction, I will thank them for being *honest* with me, and let them know that I really appreciate their honesty. This is not a promise. It’s a character assessment in that specific situation. Here’s the key – once someone has been assessed as honest, they are less likely to lie, and more likely to open up. Even convicted criminals want to be seen as honest and trustworthy, so they will later on in the interview admit convictions to me that others might have missed. So it’s not a promise that works with adults, it’s letting them know that I see them as honest and being straight with me in that situation that gives me an edge as an interviewer later on in the interview when more delicate questions need to be asked.

    I’m curious what others will write, as this is an important part of my job, and I’d like to learn from others who are successful in this area!

    Russ Conte

  2. user125 says:

    Hm.. interesting point. However, I’m inclined to believe that is true if the interviewee has a need for recognition. To be called honest would make such a person feel proud and more inclined to tell the truth. However, those who just don’t care and want to get the job may feel that he’s established a line of truth with you, allowing him to get past with any other subtle mistakes. Of course you’d probably pick him out as a liar for other slip ups but, I don’t think there is any other way to prevent a person from lying ESPECIALLY during high stress situations. The only thing that comes close to build up a moral code of honesty. Not perfect, but certainly better than nothing.

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