It starts off innocently enough. We teach our kids to lie without even thinking about it. We tell them "fibs" about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. These are false statements, told to those who are supposed to trust us; yet we don't have a problem with these little stories. I think most of us realize that telling children their favorite present came from Santa isn't a bad thing. We were most likely told that same thing when we were little. But, often, our well-intentioned lies go beyond the fanciful and playful. What then?
Have you ever told someone that everything was just fine when it really wasn't? I'm guilty of this quite often. We get in the habit of saying things to make others feel better, or to make them less worried. These little fabrications are what scientists call "prosocial lies." The opposite side of the coin are antisocial lies...lies we tell others for our own personal gain. I was shocked to read that scientists believe most children develop the ability to lie by the age of three! And that by the age of five, most kids can, and will, tell lies to avoid punishment and to get out of doing their chores. From ages seven to eleven, children begin to reliably lie to protect others, or to make themselves feel better. And they'll start to consider the telling of prosocial lies to be justified. Interestingly enough, research shows that they don't tell these lies to please adults. Rather, they tell these fibs because they are strongly motivated by feelings of empathy and compassion. Why, and how, does this happen? What does this development in children tell us about humans and how they take care of each other? Recent studies are revealing the answers to these puzzling questions.
If you look at the data all together, it seems to point to the fact that lying sometimes can reveal what's best in people!
Studies show that learning to lie represents a developmental milestone in children; a 'theory of mind' is what it's called. This means that children develop the ability to distinguish their own beliefs, intents, desires, and knowledge from what might be in the minds of other people. So, children who learn to lie earlier than others are, in a way, ahead of the game at least on the developmental curve! They have come to the understanding that not everyone shares the same thoughts, feelings, or facts. Sadly, though, antisocial lying is learned earlier than prosocial lying because it is fundamentally simpler; it mainly requires the understanding that adults can't read their minds. Prosocial lying, however, requires a child to identify the suffering in another person (empathy) and to have the desire to alleviate that suffering (compassion). Pretty deep thoughts for a kid! But scientists tell us that even more importantly, prosocial lying involves the anticipation that their words or actions might actually be the cause of someone's suffering. In a paper published in 2015 by Harvard psychologist Felix Warneken, he shows that children tell white lies because of an actual empathetic connection to another. He says that, "Children are trying to resolve two conflicting norms - honesty vs. kindness." And by about the age of seven, children will side with kindness over honesty! Dr, Warneken says that this "reflects increasingly sophisticated moral and emotional reasoning." It's a good sign then, developmentally-speaking, when children show the ability to make this kind of calculation. And evidence proves that humans tend to see prosocial lies as the moral choice. What's interesting to note, is that people (kids included) tend to behave more prosocially - more grateful, more generous, more compassionate - in the presence of images depicting eyes. And while you might expect that humans will lie less, if they're being "watched" (even though the eyes are only pictured) but being "under the eyes" also influences what kind of lies people tell. Humans will tell more prosocial lies if they have a pair of eyes looking down on them. No eyes? You're apt to get the cold, hard, truth.
This is pretty interesting stuff! I hope you'll come back tomorrow for the final part of The Truth About Lies.