Episode 2: Evolution of a little liar

Most parents see lying as a cause for worry or reprimand. But some suggest that at young ages it could be a welcome sign of childhood development.

Photograph by Dan Winters

Most parents see lying as a cause for worry or reprimand. But some suggest that at young ages it could be a welcome sign of childhood development. We ask writer Yudhijit Bhattacharrjee and researcher Dr. Kang Lee: what does lying tell us about human cognition?


VAUGHN WALLACE: Here’s a quick trivia question for you: What do the third law of Hammurabi's code, the ten commandments, and US code, Title 18, section one thousand one, all have in common?

They all prohibit lying. And with good reason: because it turns out as humans we lie ALL. THE. TIME.

YUDHIJIT BHATTACHARJEE: There's lies that are told to avoid punishment. ... Lies that are intended to influence large numbers of people. ... to gain an unjust reward ... to save face or to avoid embarrassment... to make somebody else feel better. Those are all different types of lying.

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a contributing writer here at National Geographic.
He has a lot to say about lies, but what really caught my attention was how early we start to tell them.

BHATTACHARJEE: Children will invariably lie and they're actually going to practice the art of lying from you know from the age of 2 or 3. And and they're just going to keep getting better.

Almost every law code in the world prohibits lying, but we don’t normally think of two-year-olds as immoral deviants. So: should we?

Yudhijit says, not at all — in fact, we should probably be glad our kids are lying.

I’m Vaughn Wallace, and this is Overheard at National Geographic.
It’s a show where we get to eavesdrop on the wild conversations Nat Geo’s explorers and scientists are having everyday. and then we follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week: the evolution of a liar.

How kids learn to lie and what that can teach us about what’s going on inside those little brains.

Dr. Kang Lee is a professor at the University of Toronto.

And as the preeminent expert on childhood lies he’s spent the past two decades getting more than 5000 children to lie to him.

KANG LEE: Yes I've I've heard all sorts of lies and some of them are very very well crafted and some of them are poorly crafted, of course.

Lee’s research started when he noticed a strange quirk in child psychology …A quirk that might raise the ears of anybody who has ever been a parent

Up until the 1980s, psychologists believed that children under seven were intellectually unable to lie.

LEE: That was very surprising to us. Growing up as a child I remember the earliest lies vividly. So yet you looked at scientific literature or legal literature and people say, "Well kids don't lie."

They expected kids to misremember facts, or even say untrue things because they didn’t understand what they were saying. But children could not intentionally lie.

That may be partly because there wasn’t much research to start with.

Only a handful of scientists had ever written about childhood lies, including one familiar name.

LEE: There was a report by Darwin. Charles Darwin himself.

WALLACE: Really?

LEE: He wrote a report about his observations of his first son, Dodi, who one day came out to the kitchen with sugar all over his face. and then Darwin asked him, "What's going on?" And so his eyes brightened with this guilt, according to Darwin. So he said, "What did you do?" he said, "nothing." Darwin was very concerned. because he thought lying at such a young age could be a bad indicator.

WALLACE: Wow. So from Darwin we have the origin of species and perhaps the origin of lying.

LEE: Yes indeed.

In this brief report about his son, Darwin voiced a concern that lots of parents share that his lying kid would grow up to become an immoral adult.

LEE: No it's not true at all. whether or not the child knows right or wrong, would have nothing to do with whether or not a child is lying at a young age.

It’s a good thing that early lies don’t warn of some deep character flaw … because lots of my coworkers were pretty excellent at telling lies as kids.

So being the wonderful co-worker that I am … I recorded a few of their stories and brought them to Dr. Lee for analysis … you know, for science.

We’re going to keep the liars anonymous, for their own protection.

Lee says that the way we learn to lie follows a predictable pattern — he can tell a lot about a kid’s development just by analyzing the kind of lies they tell.

Phase 1? The clumsy cover-up.

WILKINS: I don't know why, but I developed an obsession with eating crayons. My mom of course didn't want me to do that. So she was constantly telling me to stop eating the crayons. And I didn't want to. So I would sneak off into this armoire that we have where we keep all of our board games and I would close the door as best I could. 

And I would just sit there in the dark and chew my crayons. And I thought I was really getting away with it but somehow my mom always knew. And come to find out, it was because the contents of my diaper would always be all the colors of the rainbow.

WALLACE: What are some of the first things you notice about this lie that she told?

LEE: So this is so typical about the children's first lies. It's about: you have done something you're not supposed to do and then you have to cover that up.

Lee knows this kind of cover-up is typical because he’s built an experiment to test a very similar scenario. He’s become an expert in getting kids to break the rules and then lie about it.

LEE: So we would bring kids to our labs and then we say, "OK, let's play a game."

It’s a guessing game.

So the child faces the wall and the researcher takes out a toy. And then the researcher plays a sound that correlates to what that toy is.

So if it’s a toy cat, then he might play a meowing sound.

Or if it’s a fire truck, then he’ll make a truck noise.

But then Lee starts to shake things up.

LEE: And then we take out another toy — let's say it's Barney the Dinosaur. And then we play the music. But the music has nothing to do with Barney. So there's no way the child is able to correctly guess its identity. then we say, "Oh I'm sorry. I have this important phone call to make. When I'm gone, do not peek at the toy.” And then we leave the room. When we come back we ask them, When that was gone, did you peek?


LEE: So then that the child has to make a decision: Should I lie or should I tell the truth?

I’d like to pause here to point out that Dr. Lee wants to avoid encouraging or actually teaching the kids to lie in his experiments. Studies like these keep university ethics boards up at night.

Because like an FBI sting operation, he needs to create the perfect combination of motive AND opportunity to catch the liars in action.

Once all the pieces are in place, Lee listens INTENTLY to hear if the kids will lie and how convincingly.

LEE: The majority of kids would say, "no I did not peek." Then we would ask them, "What do you think it is?” So some of the kids would say, “I know what it is, it's Barney.” And then we say, "How do you how do you know?" "I just know." Right. So not very well-crafted lie.

Lying is a good meter stick for development for a simple reason: it’s hard.

Really hard.

Think about the mental gymnastics required to know the truth, suppress that truth, and invent an alternate reality at the same time.

The really young kids in Lee’s lab — the 2- and 3-year-olds — they’re not very good at this.

But around 7 years old, kids make the next leap in development — mind reading.

LEE: Before they actually tell the lie. They also have to think about you. Like to what extent you know about what actually happened when you went away. Which means I have to read your mind as well.

Mind reading is tough, so it makes sense that a kid’s first cover story might be a little clumsy.

LEE: I asked, "What do you think the toy is?" She said, "Mmm, I don't I don't quite know. So give me a second. So she put her hand underneath the cloth she says, "it feels purple, so I think it's Barney."

WALLACE: It feels purple.

LEE: Yeah.

As kids get older, their lies start to get a little bit more credible.

LEE: Some other kids would say, "Mmm, you know the music sounds familiar. I heard it one time you know in the show. So I think it's a Barney. So something like that.

Around the same time they are learning to read minds, kids begin to develop another lying superpower, emotional intelligence.

Here’s lying co-worker number two — she’s a producer here at National Geographic.

OCHSENSCHLAGER: I had just acquired a taste for soda — and my parents were really excited about this because I was a very picky eater when I was younger. And so as a reward, my mom went out and bought some Cherry 7-Up and she gave me a can and said, "This is for you. Good for you for trying new foods." And I took a sip of the Cherry 7-Up and I hated it. It was disgusting.

So I had this plan. and I took that can of Cherry 7-Up into the bathroom and I poured it down the sink. And my mom came back about five minutes after she'd given me the can and said, "How are you enjoying your special treat?" And I said, "Oh so good. I finished it.” 

And I think my mom knew that like a seven-year-old wasn't gonna finish a can of soda in like five minutes. And I remember being punished because my mom said, "Lying is a terrible thing. You never ever ever lie.” And this was just so devastating to me because I remember thinking that I had lied because I didn't want to hurt her feelings because she had done this thing for me that I thought was really nice.

LEE: Yeah. Before she said “seven” I just knew that it is about six or seven years of age.

WALLACE: Hmm. And why is that?

LEE: This is a time the most of the kids would start spontaneously tell white lies.

We tell white lies to be polite.

“Oh yeah. Dinner was great!”

“heey, i love your haircut...nice haircut,”

“Looking forward to that Friday meeting at 4pm!”

LEE: Simply put you cannot tell the truth all the time. If you tell the truth all the time to people including your family members, your spouse, or your colleagues, you're not going to survive in this society. Nobody's going to like you. You are going to be very very lonely person.

Lee’s point is that we have to divorce our thinking from “all lies are bad.”

Because they’re not.

The well-placed lie is an important social skill.

As with his other experiment, Lee has figured out the perfect formula to study how kids tell white lies.

LEE: We tell them they are going to get a big gift to take home. Then the second person comes in and they're pretending does not know which gift its child has picked out. And that would give the child a wrapped a bar of soap. So when the child opens up the wrapper and sees the bar of soap, then we say, "How do you like the gift I give to you?"

This entire set-up has been designed to bring the child to this critical moment where they are stuck with a lose-lose proposition: Should they be rude, or should they tell a lie?

LEE: About 50 percent of kids will be very blunt. Say, "I don't like it. It's a bar of soap." But the other 50 percent of kids would say, "Um I love it." And actually one kids said, "Oh a bar of soap! We just run out to bar soap at home. So it's just exactly something we need." And then we ask the parents whether that's true, and she said, "no that's not true."

It might be a little embarrassing to have a stranger catch your child in a lie, but is that worse than refusing a gift or telling someone they look horrible?

In the same way that children learn “please” and “thank you,” they learn what kinds of lies are okay by carefully watching their parents.

The best evidence that these lies are taught is that these kinds of lies, [they] aren’t the same for every society.

LEE: Yes indeed yep. There are actually cross-cultural differences in terms of when and how—what kind of lies we tell.

For example, Lee has found that children in cultures that value modesty will tell lies to play down their achievements.

And in cultures that value cooperation, kids will lie to protect their classmates.

LEE: Kids actually watch how parents do things at home. And then the child just watching. Say, "Hey you know and she just said you should sure you're not supposed to lie, but now she's lying." So kids are very sensitive to this and say, "Oh maybe this the time you could lie."

So catching your kid in a lie is no big deal. But if you’re truly concerned about getting your kid to tell the truth, Lee says that the easiest intervention is the most straightforward: you just ask them to promise to tell the truth.

LEE: What I say is if you tell the truth, I'm not going to punish you. Then my child is going to be honest.

As they head into adolescence kids begin to tell fewer lies.

They’re not lying about whether they went to the bathroom before bed, or brushed their teeth in the morning, or even whether they finished the grilled cheese sandwich that you can clearly see is being eaten by the dog.

Instead teenagers are learning which lies they can get away with. And their cover-up stories are a bit more sophisticated than they were when they were 8.

Eventually, teenagers will catch up to us adults and tell a perfectly reasonable average of 1-2 lies per day, just like the rest of us.

WALLACE: So, I saw that you're a parent yourself and has your research changed your parenting style at all?

LEE: Yes indeed. I have a son. And he told me his first lie in my lab, at exactly three years of age.

WALLACE: Does he try to lie to you at all?

LEE: Well you know he doesn't lie very often, by the if he lies, I actually cannot tell to be honest with you.

WALLACE: He knows that you're watching his developmental signs and are probably attuned to any kind of wool he's trying to pull of your eyes.

LEE: Yes exactly. And then he would try to watch you know what signs I'm looking for and then he tried to hide them.

WALLACE: So it's it's like espionage and counter-espionage.

Got that? Even Kang Lee, the world’s premier scholar of childhood lies, a doctor who has observed 5000 different children lying to his face,(pause) can’t even tell when his own son is lying.

LEE: Yes indeed. Yeah it's really like arms race between you and your child, you know. But overall you actually are on the losing side.

Thank you so much for listening. We hope that you’ll want to subscribe to us on Apple podcasts, or wherever else you listen.

And while you’re hitting that subscribe button—we’d love it you’d write us a review. Even if it’s a white lie.

We’re going to be coming out with another episode next week - but if you want something to tide you over in the meantime—check out our show notes. We’ve got lots of links there with additional information.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Kristen Clark, Emily Ochsenschlager, Robin Miniter and Jacob Pinter.

Our editor is Casey Miner.

Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.

Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineered our episodes with additional help from Nick Anderson, Jerry Busher and Jay Olszewski.

Special thanks to: Pineapple Street Media.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners, Susan Goldberg is our editorial director.

I’m Vaughn Wallace. See you next week.