Lying in young children: Errors of anthroporphism

From a recent post on the blog of the British Psychological Association:

Lying is common at age two, becomes the norm by three
by Christian Jarrett, BPS research Digest
February 22, 2013

They’re too young to need to fib about lipstick on their collar or even their unfinished homework but a new study finds the majority of three-year-olds are already practising liars. Deception in very young children has been documented before, but this is the first time it has been systematically tested in a laboratory.

Angela Evans and Kang Lee tested 65 two- and three-year-olds (28 girls) individually in a quiet room, part of which involved them being told not to peek at a toy. Despite this instruction, 80 per cent of the kids sneaked a peek. And when they were asked afterwards if they’d looked, around a quarter of two-year-olds lied about it, rising to 90 per cent of those aged over 43 months.

Although lying was rife among these young children, most of them weren’t very adept at it. When asked what the toy was, 76 per cent of the liars blurted out the answer, exposing their dishonesty.

The researchers also put the toddlers through a series of mental tests to see if any particular skills went hand-in-hand with lying. One of these was a kiddies’ version of the Stroop test that involved pointing to small pictures of fruits, while ignoring bigger versions. Like the adult Stroop, success at this task is thought to require a mix of inhibitory control and working memory. Evans and Lee found that the children who excelled at the kiddies’ Stroop were more likely to lie, which supports the idea that the development of lying depends on a mix of inhibitory ability and remembering the desired answer.

An important implication of this last point, the researchers said, is that the greater honesty of the younger children isn’t a mark of their moral purity, but simply a side-effect of their “fragile executive functioning skills.”

A weakness of the study is that it doesn’t look at different types of lies or tell us anything about the children’s motivation for lying.

Evans, A., and Lee, K. (2013). Emergence of Lying in Very Young Children. Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0031409

In my opinion, the authors have totally missed the point in their conclusions to this study.

To digress for a moment, when my daughter was a toddler, perhaps 2 or 3 or thereabouts, I came downstairs one day to find her, crayons in hand, creating some artwork on the wall just outside of the kitchen.

I said, “Elizabeth! What are you doing? You know you’re not supposed to crayon on the walls!”

What followed could/should have been in slow motion. She looked at me with a startled and confused look on her face. Then she looked at the wall. Then she looked at the crayon in her hand. Back to me. Back to the wall. Back to the crayon.

And finally back up at me. “I didn’t do it”, she said.

Her thought process in those moments was almost broadcast aloud as I watched the different expressions cross her face before she replied.

“Oh yeah. I’m not supposed to do this.”

“Oh no. I wish I hadn’t done this.”

“Oh I know. I DIDN’T do this!”

My point is it wasn’t a lie in the adult sense. Or even in the sense of an older child.

The process was clearly a transformation of reality which led to a conclusion where no one would be upset with her. She convinced herself. And then she conveyed the resolution of her dilemma to me.

To me, the flaw in the logic of the authors of this study was basically the sin of anthropomorphism. That literally means assuming human motives or emotions or cognitions from the behavior of other species without supportive evidence, or interpreting the behavior of another species in human terms.

Children are not adults. One cannot accurately interpret their behavior in anything beyond the context of childhood. The same applies to adolescents.

It is not lying. It is a cognitive distortion of objective reality, certainly, something we all do at times throughout the lifespan. But for very young children, it is a distortion that allows them to feel better about who they are and to “avoid” having disappointed their significant others, i.e., their parents. In a way, it’s the perfect solution for a child of that age. It’s clearly not the perfect solution for an adult but that merely underscores why we should not attempt to interpret the behavior of children from the viewpoint of an adult.

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