The Wilson Quarterly

Almost every child has heard the classic tale of Pinocchio, his growing nose teaching them at a young age that lying is a vice. Nasal implications aside, new research suggests that common childhood lies — like blaming the cat for knocking over the family heirloom, or pointing the finger at one’s younger sibling for taking the last cookie out of the cookie jar — may actually have long-lasting benefits for children.

Dr. Kang Lee, director of the Institute of Child Study at University of Toronto, found that children who lie more frequently at the age of two will tend to have faster brain development and lead more successful lives as they mature. Lying is a cognitive skill that depends on high-level reasoning, and the ability to fabricate a credible lie requires complex brain processes and strong mental faculties, whether integrating information from a variety of sources or misconstruing the facts in a believable fashion. After analyzing 1,200 children between the ages of two and sixteen, Dr. Lee and his team concluded that children who lie possess stronger “executive functions,” the social cognitive ability to be in control emotionally and mentally.

Not only is the ability to tell convincing lies related to mature social and cognitive skills, but the inability to lie successfully is actually harmful.

As children fib with greater frequency, they are simultaneously developing cognitively and socially. To craft a successful lie, children need to understand that others perceive situations differently and thus, they need to reorient their own perspective through the eyes of another. Also known as the “Theory of Mind,” this concept is the recognition that others have beliefs and understandings that are different from one’s own. Children who are in preschool and kindergarten begin to develop this skill, but as they mature, they gradually learn how to lie more persuasively.

In another study, psychologists at the University of Sheffield observed 135 children and noticed that children who lie performed better in cognitive tests than their more honest counterparts. The Sheffield psychologists reasoned that the children who lied had better results because telling a convincing lie involves advanced memory skills in order to avoid revealing the truth.

Similar results can be found in a 2002 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Development, when small children were questioned about lies they made, 74 percent of them gave away the truth. However, as the children mature, they will gain better control of their verbal and nonverbal cues, becoming better liars. Lying at an early age gives children a head start on developing verbal memory. One of the lead researchers of the Sheffield team summarized that their research “shows that thought processes, specifically verbal working memory, are important to complex social interactions like lying because the children needed to juggle multiple pieces of information while keeping the researcher’s perspective in mind.”

Not only is the ability to tell convincing lies related to mature social and cognitive skills, but the inability to lie successfully is actually harmful. A study published by the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior in 1999 concluded that adolescents who tell less believable lies tend to often have worse social skills than their counterparts.

The bottom line all these researchers come to is that if parents catch their child in a lie, they should not be alarmed — in fact, their child most likely has an excellent memory and key critical thinking skills.

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Further reading:

Wendy Hubbert, “Double Lives,” Slate, September 2015.

Richard Alleyne, “Lying children will grow up to be successful citizens,” The Telegraph, May 16, 2010.

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock

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