Toddlers are capable of lying, claims new Canadian study

Jordana Divon
Shine On
January 25, 2013

First Lance Armstrong, now toddlers? Lying is having a banner week.

A new University of Toronto study published in this month’s edition of Developmental Psychology claims that our youngest humans can start telling untruths even before they’re able to string a full sentence together.

The study found that children as young as two years old were capable of lying – at least 18 months earlier than previously research indicated.

“We were very surprised that so many kids lied and lied so early,” says Dr. Kang Lee, lead researcher and senior child psychologist at the university’s Institute of Child Study.

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Of course, anyone who has ever raised a child already knew that. (“Did you smear this entire peat swamp of mashed peas all over mommy’s favourite silk blouse, Johnny?” “Noooooooo!”)

But in order to make it science, Lee collected a sampling of 65 toddlers: 41 three-year-olds and 24 two-year-olds.

He and his team engaged in a little elemental trickery themselves in order to see how the children would react.

Here’s how it worked. The team would place three toys behind the children’s backs. The children would then be asked to identify the toys based on the noises the researchers would make to identify them.

If the first toy was a car, one of the researchers would make a car noise. If the second toy was a dog, a barking sound would be employed.

That’s when the real test began.

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“Then we said there was a third toy and if you guess that right you get a prize,” Lee tells the Toronto Star.

“But the third toy, let's say it was a Barney, but we played music that had nothing to do with Barney so there was no way they could guess correctly what it was.”

At that point, the researchers would leave the room, warning the children they were not allowed to sneak a peek at the toy in order to discover the correct answer.

Hidden cameras were set up to capture whether they listened to instructions. In the majority of cases, the children were whipping out that toy within seconds to grab a quick look. Hey – a prize was at stake here.

When researchers returned, they would ask the children if they’d looked at the toy. Approximately 25 per cent of the two-year-olds lied, says Lee.

In previous studies conducted over the past 15 years, Lee has also discovered that nearly half of all three-year-olds are also prone to lying in order to cover up a mistake or behaviour that might get them into trouble.

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Interestingly, the study also discovered that the lying tots exhibited a more advanced sense of “executive functioning,” or higher learning skills.

These little future CEOs and lawyers also displayed a more advanced “theory of mind,” – that is, the ability to guess what other people are thinking.

But it doesn’t mean that an early onset of dishonesty will automatically translate into smarter children.

Lee says there’s no evidence little liars are any smarter than their more honest peers, nor that they’ll continue to mature into “chronic liars” as they get older.

In fact, most of their peers will have already caught up to them in the prevarication department by the time they’re seven years old.

So there’s nothing unusual about little Johnny for trying cover up his Jackson Pollack pea-on-silk painting. Just take the dry-cleaning costs out of his future allowance five years from now.

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