From “Why Kids Lie” by Dr. Paul Ekman (pp. 86-89)
August 27, 2018
Developing the Ability to Lie
Many of the abilities that develop with age-abilities necessary for children to take increasing responsibility for themselves — also allow them to be more successful if they choose to lie. Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said that he didn’t have a good enough memory to lie. But not all lies require a good memory. Lies in which nothing false is said — I call them concealment lies — do not depend on memory. Here’s a typical concealment lie in which a good memory is not necessary: When Mom asks how his day was, Johnny doesn’t mention he was kept after school by the principal, who threatens that the next time Johnny throws a spitball at the teacher he will be suspended. Johnny said nothing false, nor did he have to remember an elaborate alibi.
Remembering a Lie
But suppose Mom noticed that he got home later than usual and asks him why. If Johnny covers the truth (that he was kept after school by the principal) by saying that he went over to his friend Joe’s house to play, he needs to remember that line and its implications… Memory does improve with age and, as with many other abilities, by adolescence is as good as an adult’s.
Successful lying requires plotting out more than one step ahead at a time; it requires various contingency plans. Concealment lies require less of this skill… Telling a false story makes the greatest demand on the liar’s ability to think strategically… Such sophisticated planning matures with age. Some people are never very good at it, others exhibit the mentality of a chess player when they are six years old. But for most children, this develops as they grow older.
A successful liar considers the perspective of the target being lied to. Taking the role of the other person, considering what will seem credible or suspicious to that person, allows the liar to consider the impact of his own behavior on the target and to fine-tune and adjust his behavior accordingly… Preschoolers aren’t very good at this because at such early ages children don’t realize that there is more than one perspective — theirs — on an event. They think everyone thinks the way they do. As they move toward adolescence, kids become much more able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
Language Skills and Emotional Control
To lie well a child must also develop language skills, using words to refer to things that are not actually present… A successful liar is a smooth talker, able to think quickly and invest plausible accounts when caught off card…Skillful lying also requires emotional control. A good liar has the ability to feign emotions he or she doesn’t feel, to sound and look calm, interested, pleased, or any other feeling required for the particular lie.
These abilities — memory, planning, take the role of the other person, fast thinking and talking, and control of emotions — are all necessary for the child to grow into adulthood.
Pleased and Deceived
Ironically, the abilities that make parents proud and pleased at their child’s development are also the same abilities that will later enable the child to disappoint and deceive his or her parents. Growing up and achieving independence means a child has the ability and also the responsibility to choose between truthfulness and dishonesty.
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Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.