I was planning to focus on teenagers and adults in this post, but there seems to be some SKEPTICISM about the idea that babies and very young children are involved in deception and lying. Since skepticism, at least critical skepticism or skepticism which demands good reasons and solid evidence for claims, is a good thing in my view, I don’t want to ignore or discourage such skepticism.
Rather, I think we should take a closer look at some important facts and evidence on this question about very young children. One of the key studies on this question was just published last year, in an article called “Emergence of Lying in Very Young Children” (Developmental Psychology © 2013 American Psychological Association 2013, Vol. 49, No. 10, 1958–1963). The authors are Angela D. Evans (Brock University) and Kang Lee (University of Toronto and University of California, San Diego).
Here is a summary of this article [emphasis added]:
Lying is a pervasive human behavior. Evidence to date suggests that from the age of 42 months onward, children become increasingly capable of telling lies in various social situations. However, there is limited experimental evidence regarding whether very young children will tell lies spontaneously. The present study investigated the emergence of lying in very young children. Sixty-five 2- to 3-year-olds were asked not to peek at a toy when the experimenter was not looking. The majority of children (80%) transgressed and peeked at the toy. When asked whether they had peeked at the toy, most 2-year-old peekers were honest and confessed to their peeking, but with increased age, more peekers denied peeking and thus lied.
However, when asked follow-up questions that assessed their ability to maintain their initial lies, most children failed to conceal their lie by pretending to be ignorant of the toy’s identity. Additionally, after controlling for age, children’s executive functioning skills significantly predicted young children’s tendency to lie. These findings suggest that children begin to tell lies at a very young age.
The first sentence of this abstract supports my general claim: “Lying is a pervasive human behavior.” Skepticism, at least reasonable or moderate forms of skepticism, can thus be based upon established empirical generalizations about human behavior. The first sentence of the article cites research supporting this claim:
Lying is a pervasive behavior in the adult world (DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996).
The second sentence cites previous research which supports the claim that young children tell lies (at least from 42 months and on, i.e. children from 3.5 years old on up):
Furthermore, children, as young as 42 months, have been found to lie in laboratory settings for a variety of reasons (Evans, Xu, & Lee, 2011; Polak & Harris, 1999; Popliger, Talwar, & Crossman, 2011; Talwar & Lee, 2002).
The issue, according to these psychological researchers, is whether children younger than 3.5 years old tell lies. In other words, Do very young children tell lies? Their conclusion, based on a psychological experiment was: YES. Furthermore, they concluded that not only do 2-year-old children tell lies, but that the tendency to tell lies increases significantly between 2 years of age and 3 years.
The article reports an experiment conducted with sixty-five 2- to 3-year old children. But the introduction mentions some anecdotal and observational evidence that also supports the claim that very young children tell lies [emphasis added]:
…Parental reports suggest that children younger than 3 years will lie. The first report was made by Darwin (1877), who, after observing his son attempting to deceive him, concluded that even children as young as 30 months will attempt to lie. More recently, Newton, Reddy, and Bull (2000) examined the lie-telling behaviors of the second author’s son, who was 30 months old. Using a natural observation method, these authors reported 37 incidents of deception. In addition to parental reports, Wilson, Smith, and Ross (2003) observed lie telling at home and found that 65% of 2-year-olds and 94% of 4-year-olds lied at least once.
The primary evidence presented in the article concerns an experiment conducted with very young children [emphasis added]:
Children were invited to play a guessing game. A toy was placed behind them (e.g., a duck), a noise associated with the toy was made (e.g., quacking), and the children were asked to guess the name of the toy. After the children successfully guessed the first two toys, the experimenter told children that she needed to get a storybook and that the next toy would be placed on the table with the noise playing but that they were not to turn around while the experimenter retrieved the storybook. The toy was placed on the table, and a musical card played music unrelated to the toy so that children could not accurately identify the toy. Due to the young age of the children, the experimenter did not leave the room but instead went to a corner (in front of the child) and rummaged through a bin with her back to the child. Hidden cameras captured whether children peeked. After 1 min, the experimenter closed the bin loudly and stood up to indicate that she was done and was about to turn around. The experimenter then turned around and immediately covered the toy with a cloth. Children were classified as either peekers (peeked at the toy) or nonpeekers (did not peek at the toy). As a measure of whether children understood that they were not supposed to peek, children’s behavior at the moment that the experimenter stood up was coded. Of the children who peeked at the toy, 86.5% (N _ 45) of children returned to their seated position with their back to the toy, indicating that they understood the rule and remained in this position while the experimenter covered the toy. …
To assess whether children would tell the truth or a lie about their peeking behavior, the experimenter asked, “While I was getting the book, did you turn around and peek at the toy?” If they peeked and admitted peeking, they were classified as a confessor. If they peeked but denied peeking, they were classified as a lie teller. Then, to examine whether children were able to maintain verbal consistency between their initial statement and subsequent statements (i.e., semantic leakage control) they were asked, “What do you think it is?” Children who blurted out the name of the toy were classified as revealers. Children who concealed their knowledge by either feigning ignorance (e.g., saying “I don’t know”) or guessed another toy were classified as concealers.
Evans and Lee analyze the results of this experiment and draw some conclusions about very young children [emphasis added]:
The present study investigated the emergence of lie-telling behaviors in children between 2 and 3 years old. We examined the development of the lie-telling behaviors, and the relation between lie-telling and children’s executive functions. With regards to children’s lie-telling behavior, consistent with studies with older children (Polak & Harris, 1999; Talwar & Lee, 2002, 2008), the majority of 3-year-olds who peeked lied. In contrast, only a quarter of the 2-year-olds lied to conceal their transgression. Consistent with our hypothesis, we established experimentally that 2-year-olds will spontaneously tell lies. We also found that between 2 and 3 years of age, the tendency to lie dramatically increases, which mirrors the developmental trend of children between 3 and 12 years (Talwar et al., 2007; Talwar & Lee, 2002, 2008). …
In the conclusion, Evans and Lee suggest that the increase in lying from age 2 to age 3 does not represent a decline in morality, but rather is an indication of increasing cognitive ability [emphasis added]:
In summary, we demonstrated for the first time experimentally that children begin to tell lies as young as 2 years of age, but most 2-year-olds are still highly honest. Within a 1-year span, children become more inclined to lie about their transgression. In line with studies involving older children, we found that executive functioning skills played an important role in lie telling. Furthermore, the results of the present investigation suggests that rather than younger children simply being more morally inclined to tell the truth, they may simply be less able to tell lies due to their executive functioning skills. …
Lying increases significantly as very young children become better able to lie.
So, do young children tell lies? Clearly, they do. What about very young children (ages 2 to 3), do they tell lies? Thanks to Evans and Lee, we can now answer that question with a fair degree of confidence: YES they do. And by the age of 3, they have a very significant tendency to lie.
Sixteen of the oldest children in this study were from 43 to 48 months old (3.6 to 4 years old). Ten of those children peeked at the toy, and nine of the ten who peeked lied, that is, 90% of the children who peeked in this older group lied about it! The portion of the younger groups who lied ranged from 25% to 33% of those who peeked. The overall percentage was 40% of all the young children in this study who peeked lied about it. (this data from Table 1 in the article).