The Origins of Lying and Deception in Everyday Life: A Historical Perspective

The Origins of Lying and Deception in Everyday Life A Historical Perspective

The Origins of Lying and Deception in Everyday Life: A Historical Perspective

In what ways can youngsters make sense of the complicated social code that determines when they are allowed to and are not allowed to lie?


Lies and deceit appear to be especially concerning to those of us who live in the United States of America. Consider the popular legend around our nation’s founding father and commander of the Continental Army, George Washington. What most of us remember most about Washington as a child—in fact, it is the only thing we remember—is that when his father questioned him, “Did you cut down the cherry tree?” he is said to have spoken the truth, which is the only thing we know. Regardless of whether the tale is true (it was most likely made up by biographer Parson Weems), the fact that children are taught that our nation’s first president never lied says volumes about how important the subject is to American parents.




Lies and deceit appear to be especially concerning to those of us who live in the United States of America. Consider the popular legend around our nation’s founding father and commander of the Continental Army, George Washington. What most of us remember most about Washington as a child—in fact, it is the only thing we remember—is that when his father questioned him, “Did you cut down the cherry tree?” he is said to have spoken the truth, which is the only thing we know. Regardless of whether the tale is true (it was most likely made up by biographer Parson Weems), the fact that children are taught that our nation’s first president never lied says volumes about how important the subject is to American parents.



An urban legend has it that George Washington cut down a cherry tree as a kid but then confessed to the truth about his actions, despite the fact that he was well aware he would be punished. Children in the United States have long been taught about the tale as an example of moral uprightness.



It may be beneficial to consider what we mean by lying and deception, both in children and in adults, in order to develop a taxonomy that can inform our ideas about the origins of lying and deception. Given the diversity of studies on this topic, it may be beneficial to consider what we mean by lying and deception, both in children and in adults. There has been some research on the subject of lying and deceit in emotional life (for example the works of Paul Ekman), but little research into this behavior in children has been conducted. 


The study of lying and deceit started in earnest in the 1980s, with the publishing of studies by Carolyn Saarni and Pamela Cole, as well as my own, apart from Charles Darwin’s account of his kid when he was two years old and a solitary study by philosopher Charles Hartshorne in 1928. Given the long-standing fascination with emotional development, it is rather unexpected that this area of study has just recently developed. 


The research, as we will see, demonstrates that a person’s inner emotional experience can be concealed by their facial expression, even in children; furthermore, it suggests that lying and deception, as measured by both verbal and facial expression, may have been subjected to evolutionary pressure and are positively related to other cognitive capacities associated with psychological fitness.



On the surface, it seems that the concept of anything being honest suggests that it is also possible for something to be untrue or to tell a lie. Lieing, deception, and the disguising of our inner selves are all a part of the social environment in which we live, as our human experience has shown time and time again. Sonoma University professor of psychology Saarni has shown some of the deception techniques individuals use, which are derived from societal standards that dictate how people should display their emotions. Despite the fact that such norms of behavior seem perfectly normal to those who have grown up with them, they differ significantly from one culture to the next. Japan, for example, teaches children to conceal their facial emotions of anger by placing their hand in front of their lips when they laugh, with females more frequently than boys being trained to do so. When Marsha Weintraub, of Temple University, and I watched how two-year-olds reacted to their mothers’ departure, we discovered another another example of different societal and personal standards for the expression of emotion: Children in the United States are often encouraged to show sorrow at the time of separation, despite the fact that they rapidly recover after their moms have departed and they are left in the care of a babysitter. We also discovered that parents’ reactions to their children’s minor injuries varied, with some offering comforting comments such as “It’s normal to weep, it must be truly hurting,” while others reprimanded their children (particularly males) for sobbing. In a true sense, deceit, lying, and dissemblance are all “natural” features of the social milieu, and they are not just acceptable but encouraged.



It goes without saying that deceit may come in a variety of forms and degrees; concealing one’s feelings is quite different from purposefully telling a lie. One method of distinguishing between different types of lying is to examine the degree to which the deceiver is conscious of his or her own deceit.



Consciousness and Intention
These kinds of lying, such as when youngsters tell their parents that they have completed their chores despite the fact that they have not, or when students say that they were unable to complete their project on time because they were called in to assist a sick friend, are self-aware. The deceiver is well aware of the expectations placed on him or her, and he or she attempts to conceal the failure. Deceptions of this kind are often met with social contempt, which we express with words such as “You need to be courageous enough to accept your penalty,” among others.



The use of deception or lying without being aware of it is more troublesome. When someone makes a false remark without realizing that what she or he is saying is untrue, it cannot be stated that the speaker is lying. After acknowledging this fact, we may turn our attention to the issue of deceit in nonhuman creatures. The existence of deceptive conduct in animals is well documented; nevertheless, it is not apparent if chimpanzees, for example, have a third-level viewpoint that can be described as “I know the other chimp knows that I know.” Animal deceit cannot be distinguished from human deception until this viewpoint is taken into consideration.



In previous work, I proposed a taxonomy of lying and deceit that I believe may be helpful in studying children’s conduct in this area. It is possible that this taxonomy does not cover all kinds of deceit, nor does it imply that the categories are mutually exclusive of one another. When an act of deceit meets more than one of the following conditions, it is considered a fraud.



Lying in order to protect the emotions of another; lying in order to protect one’s own feelings in order to escape punishment; lying to oneself, or self-deception; and lying in order to do harm to others.
Although the first three categories are often seen as moral flaws, it will be shown that they are favorably linked to other cognitive abilities.

Providing false information in order to protect the feelings of another
Rana, a three-year-old girl, had been looking forward to receiving a Christmas gift from her grandma. She’s hoping for a nice item in the mail. In spite of this, when Rana’s grandma presents her with a sweater she had knitted, she tears open the box and beams at her grandmother while exclaiming, “It’s nice.”

Rana, like many other youngsters her age, has already mastered the art of adjusting her facial expressions and words to suit the demands of various social situations. “Little white lies” are a term often used to describe this behavior, but I prefer the phrase “lying to protect the emotions of others.” In my book, The Rise of Consciousness and the Development of Emotional Life, I suggest that the purpose of this kind of deceit is to help people survive in their social environments. The Norwegian sociologist Stein Braten described the data as follows: “There is substantial evidence that the human baby has built-in systems for assisting others.” Although some people believe that deceit of this kind harms interpersonal relationships, it is fair to presume that deceptions of this nature are necessary for the preservation of social interaction in general.




There are many instances of this motivation in everyday life, but researching it in young children in the laboratory presents some challenges. Saarni, a researcher who examines how infants acquire emotional competence, has reasoned that if a kid is promised an appealing item but does not get it, the child is unlikely to express her displeasure in order to avoid making the experimenter feel terrible about himself or herself. In her research, youngsters ranging in age from seven to eleven were given a choice of various toys and asked which one they like the most and which one they disliked the most. Once the youngsters had completed their task, they were given a challenge to solve in exchange for a gift of their choice from the toy store. Following the completion of the challenge, each kid was awarded his or her least favorite gift. The reactions of the youngsters varied according to their gender and age, as shown by the expressions on their faces and the words they uttered. Younger children, particularly males, were more likely than older children to express disappointment, while older children expressed more positive feelings on average. Cole found that girls were better at hiding their disappointment than boys in a similar study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, this time involving children as young as four years old. In this study, however, the four-year-olds were just as good as older children at concealing their sadness. When the scope of this research was broadened to include preschoolers, it was shown that three-year-olds were also able to suppress their displeasure. This talent, it should be noted, manifests itself very early in one’s life.



In order to determine if and when young children lie in order to protect the emotions of others, various paradigms have been employed. My colleague Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and I devised a variation of the traditional Rouge test in 1979, in which we marked a red mark on the nose of an infant and placed the infant in front of a mirror. The majority of children touch their noses and exhibit shame when they see the red spot in the mirror by age two, indicating that they are aware that this mark is odd and out of place in their environment. This test was modified by Kang Lee and his colleagues, who developed another paradigm to investigate the issue of lying to protect the emotions of others. The experimenter, who this time wears a red mark on her own nose, informs the kid that she is going to have her photo taken and inquires as to whether she seems to be in good health. After the first experimenter (E1) has her photo taken and exits the room, another experimenter (E2) arrives and inquires as to whether or not experimenter E1 seemed to be in good health.


In this research of 98 youngsters between the ages of three and seven, 89 percent of the participants lied, claiming that experimenter E1 seemed to be in good health. Interestingly, the 11 percent of participants who reported the truth, stating that the researcher did not seem to be in good health, had facial expressions that were very comparable to those of those who lied. Furthermore, there were no age-related differences. On the basis of these findings, it seems that youngsters between the ages of three and seven are more or less equally competent in polite deceit.


Their early training in this talent is often done in the comfort of their own homes. Parenting is a learned behavior, and it is probable that parents would instruct their children in this behavior (“Tell Grandma you appreciate her gift/cooking/choice of movie even if it is not what you wanted”) to avoid hurting others’ emotions. Deceit to preserve the emotions of others may also be seen by children whose parents engage in deception. Rana may overhear her mother say, “My friend is coming over for tea and I am very weary to meet her,” but when the friend comes, the kid sees her mother happy and hears her remark, “I am so pleased you came by,” and the girl is delighted.


Child psychologists Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee, then at Queen’s University in Ontario, examined the effect of adults telling children to lie in order to spare the feelings of another person. They used the “disappointment” paradigm developed by Saarni and Cole, but with the addition that adults encouraged children to tell a white lie. The majority of the youngsters, even those as young as three years old, cooperated; when dissatisfied, females smiled more often than boys, which indicates that they are better able to conceal their emotions when necessary.


They also demonstrate that deceit to spare the emotions of others may be detected as early as three years of age, and that females may be more adept at deception than boys, despite the fact that experimental data are still restricted. Furthermore, it seems that parental instructions to lie in order to protect the emotions of another are successful.


There is an intriguing tension between a child’s growing moral conduct and his or her developing prosocial behavior—that is, any action that is meant to benefit others—that is explored in these research investigations. In this case, there is a clear contradiction between not telling a lie and not hurting someone’s emotions, particularly considering the fact that honesty is regarded to be a component of moral conduct. In order to answer this issue, Gail Heyman directed a research at the University of California–San Diego in 2009 in which children were asked why they had told a lie and their responses were recorded. The researchers showed a series of vignettes to children between the ages of seven and twelve years old, some of which were about children who get an unwanted present and are asked if they like it or not. The children were questioned whether they liked it or not. In half of the tales, the youngsters speak the truth, whereas in the other half, they do not disclose the truth. In another set of tales, a kid commits a transgression by destroying a book from the library. Once again, in half of the tales, the youngsters admit to causing the harm, while in the other half, they do not confess.


Upon being asked to assess the conduct of the children in the tales that they had heard, the participants in this research gave more neutral scores to the politeness stories and more negative ratings to the transgression stories, according to the results of the study. Such results provide credence to the theory that children are more likely than other kinds of children to learn and assess favorably falsehoods that protect the emotions of others, as opposed to other sorts of lying.


A increasing amount of research (as described by Braten) suggests that infants exhibit early prosocial conduct, and that deception to spare someone’s emotions is one element of this activity. More evidence in support of the prosocial view of lying comes from an unpublished study by developmental psychologist Antonella Brighi of the University of Bologna, who discovered that four-year-olds who were more successful at masking their emotions when placed in the “disappointing gift” paradigm were more likely to be chosen as play dates by other children. In fact, as we shall show, deceit and lying are often linked with other prosocial and cognitive skills as well.


Trying to get away with lying in order to avoid punishment

Even though his mother has warned him not to eat a cookie, two-year-old Maron sneaks one when she is out of the kitchen. When his mother inquires as to whether he had eaten the cookie, he lies and claims that he had not.


Another kind of lying that is prevalent among youngsters has to do with the desire to avoid being punished. Children quickly learn to tell lies when they have performed an undesired behavior or have failed to complete a task that has been assigned to them. The character Maron recalls that eating a cookie has in the past resulted in parental rage or punishment, and he attempts to avoid these anticipated results by lying.


The question is, what do toddlers do after they have understood the idea that lying may provide them with an opportunity to avoid punishment? My colleagues and I wanted an experimental setting in which only little verbal activity was necessary in order to investigate this kind of deception in infants who were too young to talk effectively; we came up with the “do not peek” paradigm as a creative solution. The children in these experiments are taken into a room and placed at a table with their backs to the wall, facing forward. “Do not turn around and look at the item,” the experimenter instructs the kid as he or she unpacks an intricate toy behind their backs. After the toy has been put up, the experimenter informs the kid that she will be required to leave the room for a short period of time. Once again, when the experimenter leaves the room, the kid is instructed not to look at the toy because “we will play with it when I return.”


We set up this scenario to increase the chance that the kid would peek, which is frequently the case, and we were successful. The children are left alone in the room for a brief period of time, and if they have not peeked after five minutes, the experimenter returns to the room. “Did you take a peek?” the experimenter inquires of the youngster. Without the children’s knowledge (but with their permission), they are filmed throughout the experiment in order to give an objective record of whether they really peeked and are now lying or speaking the truth, as well as whether they are lying or telling the truth.


According to the findings of our first research, youngsters as young as two and a half years old are capable of deceit and manipulation. If left alone, the vast majority of youngsters this age would break the “no-peeking” rule; just four out of the 33 participants were able to maintain their abstinence for the entire five minutes. Of those who peeked, 38 percent confessed to doing so, 38 percent denied doing so, and 24 percent did not respond verbally. So we found that 62% of our participants were misled in some manner between the ages of two and a half and three years. The deceivers were not distinguished from the truth-tellers based on their facial expressions or physical activity, indicating that these children had already mastered the art of deception.

Others have studied into lying in children between the ages of three and eight years old, as well as the possibility that it has a relationship with different elements of mental development. After youngsters said they had not seen the item in another study conducted by Talwar and Lee, the researchers inquired as to the nature of the object. When asked to identify the item, younger children were unable to avoid doing so, thereby indicating that they had peeked, while older children had little trouble hiding the fact. According to the findings of another research, children who lied were tested on a variety of tasks that evaluated moral judgment, theory of mind, and executive functioning. One task required participants to suppress specific reactions, which was difficult for both groups. Overall, children who had lied outperformed those who had told the truth in all of these tests, a finding that clearly indicates that the capacity to lie is positively linked to cognitive abilities!

Such results provide credence to the notion that individuals who commit a transgression and then confess are less competent in a variety of areas, a notion that has significant consequences for both personal and sociobiological well-being. According to Robert Trivers’ book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Everyday Life, deception can be beneficial in protecting the immune system by reducing the stress response (that is, by preventing an increase in the stress-related steroid cortisol) that would otherwise occur as a result of the child’s failure to achieve her or his standards or goals. Higher cortisol levels have been found to be negatively linked to immunological competence in animal models of disease.


In accordance with the findings of anthropologists such as Richard Byrne, who discovered a positive relationship between neocortex size and deceit in monkeys in 2004, the idea that lying to shield oneself from punishment may be adaptive is supported by research. At the same time, there has been extensive research demonstrating the link between lying and prosocial conduct. Furthermore, psychologist Roy Baumeister and others have argued that lying may be beneficial to one’s mental health in certain circumstances, while Francesca Gino and others have shown that lying is associated with creativity.


Any claim regarding the societal advantages of lying would have to be predicated on the assumption that the majority of people are capable of learning this ability at a young age, which is not the case. How excellent is a young child’s capacity to mislead in comparison to an adult? It’s possible that things are better than we realize.


Psychologists who research facial expressions, such as Carroll Izard and Paul Ekman, have claimed that the face does not lie; thorough assessment of facial and physical expressions, they say, can always uncover deceit. Other study organizations, on the other hand, have shown that the majority of individuals are very bad at detecting deception. I conducted research with Angela Crossman to see if adults were able to detect youngsters who were lying in the “do not peek” scenario. When over 60 men and women viewed video portions of 50 or more youngsters claiming they had not looked — with some of the children speaking the truth and others lying — the adults performed no better than chance, suggesting they were unable to identify the liars, according to the findings. The same findings were obtained from videotape portions featuring older children.


The number of studies on how children begin lying to protect themselves from punishment is more than the number of studies on how children begin lying to spare the emotions of others, and the results are more conclusive in their findings. As previously stated, many studies have shown that lying begins to appear in children as young as two to three years of age, and that the frequency of lying rises as the kid grows older. Insights into why children lie may come from the strong connection between a child’s capacity to lie and his or her psychosocial competency, which in turn indicates that lying is an adaptive habit in certain ways. This view seems to be fair enough: after all, the desire to avoid punishment or damage is an adaptive characteristic.


The third kind of deception in our taxonomy has shown to be the most difficult to investigate, especially in young children. In spite of this, it is widespread among both adults and children, and it obviously has both benefits and disadvantages:

Benjamin, a timid young guy, contacts a lady to ask her out on a date, only to be informed that she would be unable for the next three weekends due to prior commitments. He now has a choice: he may come to the conclusion that she does not want to go on a date with him and feel embarrassed and ashamed as a result of the rejection, or he can accept her rejection and go on. Alternatively, he may come to the conclusion that he does not want to date a lady who is so busy. As a result, he is spared the embarrassment and disgrace. In reality, both ideas run through his head at the same time, but he only recalls that he does not want to date her.


There appears to be no doubt about the psychological benefits of this style of thinking; in certain situations, there may be no need to decrease one’s self-esteem by being completely honest with oneself. Self-deception, on the other hand, may prevent a person from learning from his or her errors or from taking required action—for example, if a person checks his or her body and finds an inexplicable lump, this may prevent him or her from taking necessary action. If the person convinces himself that the lump has always been there (a false memory), he is more inclined to do nothing about the situation. If the lump is subsequently discovered to be a first indication of cancer, the delay in treatment that resulted from the patient’s deceit may have severe ramifications for the patient. It is fair to argue that although self-deception may be psychologically beneficial, it can also be self-defeating at times.


Despite the fact that self-deception in children has gotten very little scientific attention to date, there is a wealth of information available on the development of pretend play, which it shares many characteristics with. Self-deception manifests itself in the form of knowing X but also seeming to be unaware of X at the same time. Playing pretend takes on this shape as well because the kid must maintain in her mind the two diametrically opposed ideas that the object of play X is not the object of play X. This viewpoint was first advanced by Jean Piaget, and more recently by Alan Leslie, director of the Cognitive Development Laboratory at Rutgers University, who believes that pretend play involves double knowledge, and that the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is not is required for the toddler to engage in it. It is the exact fact that the kid recognizes that her behavior is not literal—”X is not X”—that indicates that she is aware of herself. For example, according to the research I’ve done with 15-to-24-month-olds, pretend play is associated with the use of personal pronouns such as “I” and “my,” as well as with mirror self-recognition, all of which are typically present in children by the age of two.



Baby pretend play starts about one year of age, when babies attempt to mimic the behavior of adults in their environment. For example, when a baby witnesses his mother chatting on the phone and is encouraged to mimic her behaviors with a toy phone, psychologist Douglas Ramsay and I have proposed that the kid is both the subject and the object in this kind of pretense. By the age of two or three, this behavior is gradually replaced by a more complex form in which the object is another person—for example, a child might pretend that her doll is talking on the phone, rather than simply pretending that she herself is talking on the phone—and this behavior is gradually replaced by a more complex form in which the object is another person. This form makes use of the pretense of both an imagined phone and a doll who is conversing on it at the same time.

In order to evaluate the success or failure of his conduct and even to assign blame or credit for it, a child’s capacity to maintain internal norms and objectives must be shown by the age of three. (Psychologist Carol Dweck provides a wonderful example of this in the context of older children. It is also possible for self-conscious feelings such as embarrassment, shame, remorse, and pride to manifest as a result of this new capacity. My book Guilt: The Exposed Self demonstrates that at age three, toddlers experience feelings of shame when they fail at a task and pride when they do it successfully. Because of these strong emotions, people are motivated to develop new ways of thinking about themselves, which also enables them to mislead themselves about their own successes and failures.


Despite the fact that it is easy to see in young children, where it may be dismissed as mere “play,” self-deception is essential for emotional well-being at all ages, particularly in the elderly and disabled. More to the point, as we and Trivers think, self-deception may be necessary for all types of deceit.

Using deception to cause harm to others
The fourth category in our taxonomy is the kind of deception that is intended to cause pain and suffering to the victim. Such deceptions, far from being adaptive, are indicative of some kind of psychopathology. Lying that causes harm to another has gotten little attention, but Richard Rogers has done extensive research on pathological lying. This is the least prosocial of the four kinds of falsehoods discussed here, and it is the most common.





A similar maladaptive behavior is attempting to shield oneself from punishment by lying about another, since such falsehoods, although saving oneself from penalty, just shift the punishment to a different individual. From the perspective of a small kid who scribbles on the wall, blaming the mischief on a sibling makes sense as a means of attempting to avoid punishment for the behavior. From a wider viewpoint, however, pinning the blame on someone else is not an adaptive reaction since it does not promote social cohesion.


What You Should Know About Lying

Our worry about lying is not simply a national problem, despite the fact that we have as a focal point the fabricated narrative of George Washington’s perfectly honest upbringing in the United States of America. Several studies conducted with youngsters all around the world have shown that lying and deceit may be a natural part of the human experience. We are now engaged in a national debate over whether or not federal or state entities are lying to us. This argument is a subset of a broader debate in which the morality of lying is weighed against its evolutionary purpose and prosocial requirements.


Lying to others is most frequently seen as an interpersonal failure because it undermines trust, which is considered to be one of the most important characteristics of a healthy relationship. However, as previously said, lying to protect the emotions of another seems to be a required act, comparable to other prosocial actions such as assisting and empathy. Even if there are instances when it seems that lying is acceptable, the question of whether any kind of lying is justified continues to be a source of contention for the majority of us.


As we have moved away from the traditional norms of etiquette, which were formerly used to regulate much of social conduct, we have embraced the notion that we should speak our minds—that is, not lie via words or emotional behavior—and that we should not lie through our actions.


The shift away from rigid norms that are unaffected by interior sentiments and toward the open display of our emotions has sharpened our perceptions of lying and deceit, making such conduct both socially and ethically undesirable in today’s society. This may help to understand why parents are so angry over their children’s deceitful behavior.


If you look closely, you can see Margaret is carrying a doll that she says was given to her by Rana’s mother as she returns home after a play date with Rana. However, a phone call from Rana’s mother, who mentions that the doll may be returned at the next play date for the children, indicates that Margaret has stolen something that was not hers. “You lied to me! You lied to me!” Margaret’s mother exclaims after discovering her daughter’s fraudulent statement. “You will now face repercussions.”

Consequently, the problem has changed in focus: the issue now is whether Margaret and her mother’s relationship has failed as a result of Margaret’s lying to her mother, rather than whether the child committed a moral failing by stealing her friend’s doll from her friend’s house. Her mother would not have missed the chance to teach Margaret on the most basic moral problem in this event if she had realized that lying to shield oneself from punishment is likely a normal and adapted reaction of our species.


So far, the study has strongly shown that lying is a common human habit, and that the majority of types of deceit have an adaptive purpose. Our confused emotions about lying and deceit, on the other hand, are likely to reflect an underlying tension between two evolutionarily evolved needs: the need for some kind of trust and the need for social peace. In fact, Lee discovered that school-age children can distinguish between lying to protect others’ emotions and lying to protect oneself when researching lies to protect others’ feelings.


In light of the research conducted so far, we must conclude that certain kinds of lying, such as those used to shield ourselves from punishment, are only required when we have broken a social or moral penalty. When it comes to promoting prosocial behavior in children, it is through the teaching of social and moral standards that parents can be most effective. This is not to say that lying should be eliminated entirely, because the research discussed here indicates that lying (whether to avoid punishment, to protect the feelings of others, or as a form of self-deception) may well be an important aspect of prosocial behavior.


It will be essential to do more study on the relationship between lying and deceit and how they relate to future moral behavior. We will need to continue to investigate how lying and deceit influence socio-emotional conduct as well as the formation and maintenance of adult social connections in order to make further progress. The relationship between self-deception and psychopathology, in particular, requires further investigation because the role of self-deception in the maintenance of self-esteem has important implications for the treatment of psychological distress as a result of traumas associated with conflict and war.