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  • Are lying toddlers destined for greatness?

    The 'science' of detecting lies through facial expressions makes for good TV even if the results don't hold up in court.
    The 'science' of detecting lies through facial expressions makes for good TV even if the results don't hold up in court.

    But it turns out that most of the reporting on this study of lies and the lying children who tell them isn't very accurate. To put it bluntly, the media are lying about the research. Whatever you may have read in the papers, developmental psychologists are not claiming that lying is the key to getting ahead.

    It's true that psychologists at the University of Toronto's Institute of Child Study have found that one-third of three year olds lie; that more than half of all four-to-seven year olds lie; and that "11-year-olds were statistically 5.17 times more likely to lie than 7-year-olds" (Xu, F. et al, "Lying and Truth-Telling in Children: From Concept to Action," Child Development 81 [2010]: 581-96). Lying, it turns out, is a natural part of human development. But that's hardly news, especially in light of Mason Locke Weems' classic lie about young George Washington and the cherry tree.

    Excerpt from Weems' biography of George Washington tells the cherry tree myth

    In his best-selling biography of George Washington (1800), Mason Locke Weems tells a lie when he has young George Washington say, "I can't tell a lie, Pa." Washington's admission elicited an unnaturally joyful response from his father and perpetuated the equally-inaccurate myth that truth-tellers will do well later in life.

    It is also true that psychologists see lying as a sign of normal cognitive development: in order to lie, children must be able to construct alternate realities and fool the people they're lying to. Psychologists consider lying to be evidence of executive functioning, a technical term referring to consciously-controlled, goal-oriented activity which emerges in infancy and develops during childhood: "[Executive functioning] . . . encompasses a collection of cognitive skills including self-regulation, inhibitory control, planning, attentional flexibility, strategy employment and influence." But despite what the papers are claiming, executive functioning has nothing to do with the kind of executives who make partner or become chairman of the board (Talwar, V. and K. Lee 2008: "Little Liars: Origins of Verbal Deception in Children"

    Two children who were told not to peek at a toy, peeked anyway, then lied about peeking

    In one experiment, three-quarters of the children who were told not to peek at the toy peeked, then lied to the researchers about peeking. That doesn't make them MBA material.

    It's not unusual for the media to misquote an expert or tweak a story to snag more readers. And it's deliciously ironic for them to lie about research on lying. But what the research tells us about lying is more important than what the news accounts erroneously focused on: despite all our admonitions not to lie, lying is a vital part of human communication.

    There's lying to better one's position ("I have a masters degree, in science"); lying to avoid insulting a friend ("No, it doesn't make you look fat"); lying to get out of something unpleasant ("Unfortunately, I have a previous engagement"); and lying to avoid detection ("I have no idea who cut down that cherry tree"), among others. All societies discourage lying ("Thou shalt not bear false witness"). And yet, as Dr. House has been telling us all along, "Everybody lies."

    The Cretan philosopher Epimenides (ca. 600 BCE) first articulated what is called the liar's paradox: "All Cretans are liars." He's from Crete, telling us that all Cretans lie. (The more common version of this is, "I am a Greek. All Greeks are liars.") If the first part of the proposition is true, the second isn't, and if the second is true, then the first must be a lie. We know as well that novelists lie: it's how they tell the truth.  The digital version of the liar's paradox reads, "I am a blogger. All bloggers are liars." And that poses a special problem to anyone reading this post. But the fact that children lie isn't a paradox at all, it's how they become adults.

    Bill Clinton lying to reporters about Monica Lewinsky

    Bill Clinton, in a Peter Pan moment lying to reporters: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky, I never told anybody to lie, not a single time."

    Follow up: The Guardian reports that another study showing that students who cheat are smarter than those who don't was withdrawn when it was discovered that the researchers had faked their data.


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