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The Lying Child: Lies and Cognitive Development

The Lying Child: Lies and Cognitive Development

posted by Karen Quinn, The Testing Mom - September 28th, 2013

blonde child

We know that in young kids lying is certainly related to cognitive development. We often see in children lying who are developing cognitively early. There is also the connection in adults between high IQs and the ability to lie well. This is related to pathology as well as the spectrum of lying. We do know that in young children that lying is related to early intelligence that is manifesting in children.

To be able to study lie telling you have to see someone lie. This becomes tricky because that is normally concealed behavior. If I ask you to lie now I know that you’re lying to me and you know that I know you’re lying and it’s not the same. We have to create situations where children may choose to lie.

A game is one of the ways that we can determine a child’s lying patterns. The game starts with the child hearing the sounds of different toys that are behind their back. They have to guess what it is. We make sure that they’re all ones that make characteristic sounds, so Elmo for instance says a few things and they are able to guess what it is. We do a few of these toys and they enjoy the game guessing what the toys are.

For the last one we say, “I have to go out of the room for a moment because I left papers in the other room. I’m going to leave the toy on the table and I’m going to play the clue, and you listen. When I get back you can guess what it is.” We leave the room for a minute and there’s a hidden video camera in the room to capture their behavior. What we find is that for the vast majority of young children this is really tempting. They really want to know what it is.

We make sure the clue in this case is not associated with the toy. It’s from a greeting card, so there’s no way based on listening to the clue that they can guess what it is. What we find is that the majority of children three to seven years of age will turn around and look at the toy because they’re very curious to know what it is. We even get some children who will pick up the toy and play with it a little bit. When they hear us coming back into the room they put it back and they turn back around so their back is to the toy because we’ve told them they’re not allowed to look at it while we’re gone.

We then usually cover up the toy. We ask the child to turn around and face us, and we ask them if they’ve peeked at the toy when we’re gone. What we find is that many children will deny that they have peeked and say, “No,” that they haven’t peeked. With more children, as they get older they’re more likely to tell the lie. For instance, three year olds are more likely to confess and say, “Yes,” that they have peeked. But we also find that they’re not very good at lying.

We ask them questions about what they think the toy is and they often sort of blurt out answers that sort of are cues to their deceit. For instance, in one case the toy that we had was a plush soccer ball. We said, “What do you think it is?” The child said, “It’s black and white.” We said, “How do you know it’s black and white?” The child froze suddenly and couldn’t answer that.

As they get older you get children that become more creative in their answers. We had an older child in the same situation with the plush soccer ball say, “Well, I’ve heard that squeaking sound before when I’ve played at gym. I think based on the sound it’s a soccer ball.” The music that we were playing was I think a greeting card that was playing Wagner’s Walkure so it had nothing to do with it. But the child was trying to come up with a plausible explanation about why they were going to guess it was the soccer ball.


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