Lying is a issue that has plagued humanity from the beginning of time. Lies seem to be at the root of a bewildering number of political and economic scandals, whether it be casual “white lies” to more complicated scams and major deceptions. When people in power or authority are allowed to lie and get away with it, it trickles down to innocent children that learn such behavior and mirror it in their own lives.

Children around the age of two to three years begin by telling primary lies which are designed to conceal transgressions but fail to take the mental state of the listener into consideration. Around the age of four, children learn to tell secondary lies which are more plausible and geared to the listener’s mental development.   By age seven or eight, children learn to tell tertiary lies which are more consistent with known facts and follow-up statements, according to a developmental model of lying first proposed by Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee.

It is not surprising that parents have reported seeing their own children attempt lying behavior at the age of two, since the executive functioning skills needed for lying are already in place at that age. In 1877, after witnessing his own son try to deceive him, Charles Darwin suggested that children as young as thirty months are capable of lying.

Recently a team of British psychologists used a natural observation method to spot 37 examples of lying behavior in a 30-month-old child. Child researchers at the University of Waterloo reported that 65 percent of two-year-olds and 94 percent of four-year-olds lied at least once.

There is a link between a child’s ability to lie successfully and a child’s cognitive abilities. Children need to be capable of inhibitory control, i.e., the ability to suppress a response while completing a separate goal along with executive functioning. Since children need to be capable of retaining details about the lie and the truth a good working memory is also needed. Children with poor inhibitory control are not effective liars while working memory may not be as useful.

Lying in two and three-year-old children and some of the cognitive skills involved with deception, was examined by a new study published in Developmental Psychology. The study used a series of executive functioning and verbal tasks as well as two deception tasks to measure lying behavior. It was conducted by Angela Evans of Brock University and Kang Lee of the University of Toronto. Children were invited to play a guessing game in which a toy was placed behind them and they were asked to guess they toy from a characteristic sound (such as quacking if it was a toy duck). This was the first deception task. Then after children successfully guessed two toys, the experimenter pretended to get a storybook in another room and the children were asked not to peek at a toy that had been placed behind them. Meanwhile a hidden camera monitored their behavior when the experimenter left the room. The children were then asked if they had peeked when the experimenter came back into the room with the book.

The second deception task involved a Gift Delay in which children were presented with a gift bag and asked not to peek while the experimenter left the room to get a bow. After three minutes, the experimenter returned to the room and asked if there was any peeking. Hidden cameras monitored what the child did while the experimenter was absent. Eighty percent of all children peeked while forty percent lied about it afterward, on average. While the youngest children (aged twenty-five to twenty eight months) were the most likely to peek (94.7 percent), they were also the least likely to lie when questioned (33 percent). Conversely, older children (aged forty-three to forty-eight months) were least likely to peek (62.5 percent) and most likely to lie when questioned (90 percent).  Tests of executive functioning and working memory also showed that children with better cognitive skills were more likely to tell lies.

Children as young as two years old were capable of spontaneous lying and that lying behavior rose dramatically by the time they were three years old, based on the authors results. The authors suggested that this was because younger children were less able to carry out the complex cognitive tasks that went into telling lies.   What it comes down to is, children with better cognitive ability are capable of telling better lies.