Science Watch

The unflappable Texas Representative Sam Rayburn once said, "You'll never get mixed up if you simply tell the truth. Then you don't have to remember what you have said."

Sage advice, but not something we consistently follow. As humans, we are as much defined by our economy with the truth as we are by our cooperation. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, say psychologists. Lying is a cognitive signal that people understand what others are thinking, the important cognitive milestone known as theory of mind.

As children grow older, their lying becomes more sophisticated and takes on the characteristics of their respective cultures, revealing to psychologists rich cognitive properties beneath the deceptively common practice.

Children first begin lying verbally around age 3, the time when language development and the ability to control one's own mental skills combine to form a child's theory of mind. Also at this age, children have learned their parents' rules and the consequences of breaking them. So what does a child do when Mom finds a hand in the cookie jar? Lie.

A child's initial lies tend to be of the punishment-escaping variety.

They're not yet aware of the moral qualms associated with lying, adds Kang Lee, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Toronto. It's essentially a logic puzzle to them.

And just as children enjoy exploring new spaces, they explore this new mental playground as well. Kids will lie about their names, the color of the dogs, their favorite foods-just to see what happens.

"The very first lies children tell tend to be indiscriminate as they figure out the consequences," says Victoria Talwar, PhD, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies lying from a developmental perspective.

Don't peek

Which is complicated, of course, by parents' moral guidance. On one hand, parents almost always tell their children that lying is wrong and they shouldn't do it. But children witness their parents' lies, and sometimes lying is condoned and even encouraged. Mom might tell junior to tell his grandma that he likes the sweater she gave him, even if he doesn't. These "pro-social lies" add a dimension of confusion, but it's not long before children figure out the difference. By age 4, children can reliably tell the difference between harmful lies and little white ones, and they stop lying indiscriminately.

But, as any lawyer can tell you, the lies don't drop out altogether. Instead, children develop lying into a social skill.

"Lying becomes an occasional strategy, like with adults," Talwar says.

To find out just how adept children at different ages are at twisting the truth, Talwar and Lee rounded up a group of 172 children age 6 to 11 to test their honesty in a temptation task. The researchers asked each child a series of multiple-choice questions from a card and gave them prizes for correct answers. Then right before the last question-"Which explorer discovered Tunisia?"-the quizzers announced they had to leave the room momentarily and told the children not to peek at the answer. The "correct" answer written on the card in red ink revealed the explorer to be Profidius Aikman (who, incidentally, does not exist), and next to the answer was a small picture of a lion.

About half the children took the bait and flipped over the card. When the researchers asked the children if they cheated, about 93 percent of those who did lied about it. Then the researcher asked them, "Who discovered Tunisia?" If the child answered Profidius, they then asked, "How did you know that?" Children around age 6 or 7 tended to hem and haw before finally stating that they didn't know.

But the 9- and 10-year-olds were cannier. Many said they learned it in school or they saw it on a television program-in other words, they gave highly plausible answers. Then the researchers asked follow-up questions: "What color is the writing on the back of this card?" and "What animal is shown on the back of this card?" These questions were, of course, intended to trap the lying children.

Younger children tended to fall into the trap, wanting to answer the question correctly more than they wanted to hide their indiscretion. The older children feigned ignorance, answering at least one of the entrapment questions incorrectly, and often both. The results, published in the May Developmental Psychology (Vol. 43, No. 3), confirmed the researchers' suspicions that lying sophistication increased with age.

"That's a hallmark of sophisticated lying, being able to plausibly lie," Talwar says. "They knew what the researchers knew-and what they should have known-and they were able to tailor their answers."

Prevarication international

What failed parenting! you might think. But lying is found in every culture in the world, and is independent of measures such as IQ, parenting styles or parental involvement, Lee says. But culture does play a pivotal role in how and when children lie, he says. Another study by Lee and his colleagues in the March Developmental Psychology (Vol. 43, No. 2) explored differences in lying behavior between Chinese and North American children. He found that while children recognize lies as lies no matter where they're from, they tend to tell lies that reflect the culture they're reared in.

"Kids don't differ in their judgments of whether a lie is a lie," Lee says. "The differences are in when they feel it's okay to lie."

In the study, the children responded to scenarios such as the following: Your school soccer team's star player tells you he wants to skip tonight's game because he needs to study for a test. The coach comes looking for him and asks you if you've seen him. If you betray him and tell the truth, your team will probably win the game, but if you lie and cover for him, he'll pass his test.

Children in China tended to rat him out, while North American children said they would lie and claim they hadn't seen him. Other questions presented an inverse scenario where in lying would help a team but harm an individual, and Chinese children chose to lie in these situations, whereas North American children told the truth.

Lee chalks it up to the two cultures' different priorities: Chinese culture tends to emphasize the collective good, he says, while Western culture focuses more on the individual.

"Lying is really a good example of cost/benefit analysis," Lee says. "Everybody lies. You lie, I lie, but we have to figure out when to lie and when not to."

Lee thinks it might all come down to inhibition. Specifically, the decision to tell a desirable lie is related to a person's ability to suppress the truth. Some of his preliminary forays into the question found a strong correlation between people's decisions to lie in a hypothetical situation and their success at the Stroop test (in which people try to read aloud the color of text when the words in the text are the names of colors). Most people have difficulty with the test, but some people are pretty good at it-and those people also turn out to be good liars, Lee says.

Recent findings by Victor Gombos, PhD, a psychologist at California State University at Fullerton, support Lee's conclusions. In a 2006 issue of Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs (Vol. 132, No. 3), Gombos found that lying places a high cognitive load on a person's executive functioning, especially working memory and decision-making. Just as Sam Rayburn implied, if you tell a lie, you have to keep careful track of what you say. But some people are naturally better at this than others. Gombos cites some earlier research by British psychologist Aldert Vrij that shows that "socially adroit" people make better liars.

"People who are natural actors are especially good at lying because of their abilities at social control and role-playing," Gombos says. "And extroverts lie more often-and better-than shy people."

Gombos thinks it may have something to do with people's ability to mentally detach themselves from the truth while telling the lie.

"If they believe the lie, it's easier to be convincing," Gombos says. "I think it really underscores just how complex lying can be."