Understanding others’ thoughts enables young kids to lie

Oct 11, 2015

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By Association for Psychological Science

Kids who are taught to reason about the mental states of others are more likely to use deception to win a reward, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The findings indicate that developing “theory of mind” (ToM) — a cognitive ability critical to many social interactions — may enable children to engage in the sophisticated thinking necessary for intentionally deceiving another person.

“Telling a lie successfully requires deliberately creating a false belief in the mind of the lie recipient, and ToM could provide an important cognitive tool to enable children to do so,” the researchers write.

Research suggests that children begin to tell lies somewhere around ages 2 and 3, and studies have shown a correlation between children’s theory of mind and their tendency to lie. Psychological scientists Genyue Fu of Hangzhou Normal University in China, Kang Lee of the University of Toronto in Canada, and colleagues wanted to see if they could find causal evidence for a link between the two.

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7 comments on “Understanding others’ thoughts enables young kids to lie

  • When I was twelve my brother (22) and well on his way to becoming a Professor of Maths, gave me my second best life lesson, this on the value of truth not only in science but also in society, that deceptions, even unreasonable confidence, are like little confounding tangles in this great web of knowledge and mutual understanding. They reach beyond their intended domain and become a problem for us all. He didn’t shirk the problem of “white lies” either. If untruth was intended as an act of kindness it needed to be taken on as a personal un-shareable burden that endures until undone and should be contemplated as a last resort.

    I’m all for children understanding their own and other’s minds as early as they wish and can. This more than anything to understand that people may knowingly or unknowingly be lying to them. There are limits to human reliability. (This fact I urged on my kids as they got older particularly involved grown ups, ignorant of their own ignorance or using quasi facts for the purposes of influence or control.)

    The capacity to lie needs to be dealt with not by less education but by even more. It is clear that all such knowledge and the capacities it brings needs to be matched with a thorough going understanding of the ethical considerations and moral behaviours needed to manage them.

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  • It has been suggested that when an infant first successfully passes off a deception they have tested absolutely that their mind is their own and cannot be read by others. It would be psychologically damaging if we thought our most private thoughts were available to others and some kinds of psychosis display this characteristic. I suspect deception is an evolutionary adaption for self mental well being, chimpanzees have been observed engaging in it. If that is so then infants may not be able to suppress the inclination to deceive and it may be related to the heuristic of intention attribution that infants also display at an early stage. Phil’s observation is a good one. Better education as the child develops particularly about judgements of hypothetically would serve better than ignorance.

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  • It would be psychologically damaging if we thought our most private thoughts were available to others and some kinds of psychosis display this characteristic.

    Ah yes….the religious.

    “God knows your thoughts” may be pretty effective parental control. Break that young, willful independence early.

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  • Can anyone give me more information in the testing here? Something does not seem right to me. An adult giving a child a task and then calling it lying seems to set up a conflict that can ease with repetition if the child is not chastised each time. Not sure at all.

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  • Many childhood games and grown up ones are posited on the idea of successful deception. It rather confounds the idea and utility of the games if their raison d’etre (to outguess the deceiver) is removed. Games are often licensed naughtiness, pretend fights and the like. I am sure winning a candy was seen in the light of a game. Had it been patiently explained before hand that this was not a game despite the candy reward I think they would not have seen the capacity to deceive demonstrated anywhere near so often.

    I’ve recounted many times my game of lying to my kids. Every day I would tell them one knowing lie and by the end of the day if not before they had to tell me which was the factoid.

    This was hard work for them sometimes, but such games about discerning the truth have worked well with them and such games need us to take turns at being the fibber. They have indeed turned the tables since then to put me on my mettle.

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