Lying: Life Skill or Lousy Habit?
Johnny sings a song to his mum and asks her how well she thought he sang. In reality, Mum likens Johnny’s voice to, as Simon Cowell once said of a talent show participant, “the sound a cat makes after it falls off the roof before it hits the ground”. Does Mum say this to Johnny, or does she lie and say he has a great voice?
Sarah comes in late and her husband demands to know where she’s been. Sarah has just spent several thousand dollars on new clothes, none of which her husband will believe she needs as he gazes into her overstuffed wardrobe of sartorial choices. Does she tell the truth to him?
Most famously, Donald Trump claims that his inaugural address in 2017 attracted many more thousands of participants than Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Photos from the respective days show this to be a clear misrepresentation of the truth, with estimates that Trump attracted more like one-third to one-half the number that Obama did. How shall we regard this “alternative fact”, as his advisor called it (Rein, 2017)?
The role of deception
In truth, lying is said to have developed soon after human beings gained language skills, so we can pretty much say it is endemic to the human condition (Bhattacharjee, 2017). That said, we can ask what role it plays, in both our individual development and our evolution as a species. Is it always damaging and hurtful – both to the liar and to those who are deceived – or are there any redeeming cognitive, emotional, or social benefits to the lie?
Without much effort, we can think of numerous reasons why human beings engage in deception:
- To gain unfairly gotten rewards (e.g., swindlers, scammers, and unscrupulous finance advisors, such as Bernie Madoff)
- To gain power, or to cling to it (think despots and other rulers who insist that they haven’t dipped into the public till for personal expenditures, or illegally engaged in undue influence with their power – such as Richard Nixon did in the Watergate scandal)
- To cover up bad behaviour (as cheating spouses, drug-taking athletes, and those guilty of domestic violence do)
- To enhance their image (e.g., Trump’s assertions above, or anyone doctoring a selfie they post)
- To gain fame or recognition (such as when academics – whose reputation is built on integrity – falsify findings of research studies or other academic developments)
- To maintain a relationship (as when we lie to curry favour, avoid telling a difficult truth, or simply attempt to avoid relational consequences of our actions)
Aspects of the lie
If we wish to genuinely understand prevarication, what do we need to know? Discussion in this and ensuing articles will help to illuminate such aspects of deception as:
- How and when do we learn to lie?
- How dishonest are most of us willing to be: a lot, or just a little?
- Is “telling porkies” underpinned by any particular neurobiological or psychological behaviour?
- How do we behave when we see evidence that a dearly-held notion is in fact untrue; do we let it go?
- How easy is it to deceive us, and in particular, who is more gullible: an honest person or a habitual liar?
- How, in this age of social media when we cannot actually believe what we see, are we able to separate truth from “fake news” or the fiction of doctored images?
- Are there any advantages to learning how to lie?
In this article, we take up the first and last questions.
Learning to lie may have cognitive benefits
You’ve undoubtedly seen the photo: an adorable four-year-old is looking rather glumly at the camera, chocolate crumbs all over his face. There is a half-eaten chocolate cookie on top of a small pile of cookies. The caption reads, “No, really; I didn’t have any of the cookies!” So when did this precocious child learn to tell fibs? Is it a crisis of morality? Are there terrible consequences in store for this child, and perhaps for his family as well?
Not necessarily, says University of Toronto educational researcher Kang Lee. In a study conducted with co-authors in China, Singapore, and the United States, Lee and associates taught 42 pre-school children in China – none of whom initially showed the ability to lie – how to do so in the context of a hide-and-seek game. Splitting the children into two groups with an equal number of boys and girls with an average age of about 40 months, the researchers taught the kids to play a game in which they hid a treat, such as popcorn, from an adult in one hand. The grown-up had to choose the hand that the child indicated.
If the child successfully deceived the adult, they got to keep the treat. Over four days, the experimental group of kids was taught how to lie in order to win the game while the control group was not.
The children were then administered standardised tests measuring executive function (which includes measures of self-control) and “theory of mind” (the ability to take another perspective). The children who were taught to deceive the adults outperformed the control group (University of Toronto, 2018) – and this was after just a few days of instruction! Let’s look at the benefits the experimental group gained.
Cognitive benefits from deception
Researchers are finding out that learning how to lie is an evolution: an ability that evolves, along with the motivation of the liar, with the development of the person. We will be examining this developmental progression more in future articles, but for now, notice that children are developmentally able to lie from around age four (Scholastic Parents staff, n.d.) (hence, Lee and associates’ use of 40-month-old kids as subjects: at around three-and-a-half years, they weren’t yet at a natural developmental stage of learning to fib). Here’s what learning deception may give a person.
Have you ever heard the little rhyme, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”? Lying requires the individual to remember what falsehood he or she has told in order to be able to repeat it later. Of course, for younger children, fibbing often means talking about something that is not present in reality, so they have to have a certain level of capacity for what Piaget called concrete operations – or possibly some imagination – in order to successfully carry off the lie. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said that he didn’t have a good enough memory to lie. The good news for liars – and for any young person wanting to develop cognitively – is that memory develops with age, and by adolescence is as good as any adult’s (Ekman, 2018).
Theory of mind: It’s all about perspective
Lee and associates’ study tested the children after the four days of deception-teaching (or not) on both executive function and theory of mind. In case you haven’t run across the latter term, it is the ability of a person to take another person’s perspective. It is the capacity to understand that other people don’t necessarily know what you know. Obviously, this skill is necessary to have in order to lie successfully, because when children lie, they intentionally communicate information that differs from what they themselves believe. Taking the role of the other person, considering what will seem credible to him or her, allows liars to consider the impact of their own behaviour on the “target” of the lie, and to adjust their behaviour accordingly. Not surprisingly, very young children, such as pre-schoolers, aren’t very good at this because they don’t have the development to realise that there is more than one perspective (theirs) on an event. As they get older, children get better at lying, if only because they improve at theory of mind: being able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes (Ekman, 2018).
The chess game of deception
Anyone who has ever played chess can appreciate the complexity of prevarication. Lying requires the individual to plot out more than one step at a time, and contingency plans must be made. If it is only the deception of omission (i.e., Susie fails to tell Mum and Dad that the teacher scolded her for talking too much), not so much planning is necessary. But if the fib is a sin of commission – Susie has gotten in trouble for, say, stealing and eating part of Sally’s lunch and is lying about having done that – more elaborate demand is made on Susie’s ability to think strategically. Such sophisticated thinking ahead comes naturally to some, and matures in all of us at least somewhat with age. Some are never very good at it – and we call them our “lousy liars” (Ekman, 2018).
Linguistic and emotional capacity
We can ask ourselves why the typical conman is so successful, and sadly, the answer is that he can deceive us so well because he has quite high-level control of some skills that many of us wish we had more in abundance: verbal skill and emotional control. A good liar needs to use words in plausible, precise ways, sometimes referring to things that aren’t actually present. He or she needs to be a smooth talker (think great salesmen), able to think quickly (think great public speakers or debaters), and have a sufficient imagination (like your favourite fiction author) to quickly invent credible scenarios when caught off guard. Beyond that, emotional control is needed in order to convey emotions the liar may not really feel, or to sound or look a particular way: say, calm, enthusiastic, concerned, or whatever feeling is required for the particular lie at hand. Thus we understand Lee and associates’ use of standardised tests examining executive function – self-control – after their time teaching the experimental group deception (University of Toronto, 2018; Ekman, 2018).
Lying as normal cognitive development
Like it or not, the study with the Chinese children has demonstrated that learning to deceive causes cognitive skills to be enhanced in young children: the younger they learn them, the better. The takeaway truth for any of us in guiding roles for other human beings – that is, parents, teachers, or mental health professionals -– is that we must recognise that learning the skills of deception may extend cognitive, linguistic, and emotional benefits, especially in the aspects of memory-building, perspective-taking, strategic thinking, and high-level language skills and emotional control. These are skills that our society needs to survive! This is true even though this set of skills is like a two-edged sword: in the hands of a surgeon such a knife can save lives; in the hands of an assassin, it can destroy them.
In future articles, we will look at the developmental progression of lying, what underlies the behaviour, how far most of us are willing to go with it, and what the implications are for facts-manipulation in the digital modern world.
- Bhattarcharjee, Y. (2017). Why we lie: The science behind our deceptive ways. National Geographic.com. Retrieved on 4 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Ekman, P. (2018). Learning to lie (from Why kids lie). Paulekman.com. Retrieved on 4 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Rein, L. (2017). Here are the photos that show Obama’s inauguration crowd was bigger than Trump’s. Washington Post. Retrieved on 5 September, 2019, from: Website.
- Scholastic Parents staff. (n.d.). The truth about lying: Learning to fib is an important step in your child’s development. Scholastic.com. Retrieved on 4 September, 2019, from: Website.
- University of Toronto. (2018). Learning to lie has cognitive benefits, study finds. Medical Xpress. Retrieved on 9 September, 2019, from: Website.