Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

We all know that telling lies is wrong. But, we still do it. Now, some researchers think that lying may not be all bad. New reports claim that children who tell lies have better memory than those who don’t.

In an experiment designed to tempt kids to cheat, researchers invited 114 children to a lab to play a trivia game. The 6- and 7-year-old children were asked if they had, in fact, cheated and they were asked about the details of their lie. Separately, the same children underwent tests of verbal and spatial working memory. In the end, the children who lied had better verbal memory (remembering words) than the ones who did not lie about cheating. There was no difference in scores of spatial memory (remembering pictures).

As the saying goes, we weave a tangled web when we do not tell the truth. (And, the cover-up is usually worse than the lie.) But, if you do lie, it takes a lot of brain power to keep track of what you know and what they know that you know. For children, lying is a natural part of testing boundaries and develops thinking skills, according to experts, but it is not clear when or how children first learn to lie.

Data suggest that 2- and 3-year-old children are capable of telling lies in certain situations. The ability to maintain consistency with a lie increases with age. Many elements, including social and cognitive factors, influence and predict a child’s tendency to lie.

Some truth-bending is probably fine – even fun and imaginative: role playing games and elaborate storytelling are impressive for a young child and it is no surprise that these activities reveal a child who is bright and creative. But, of course, being less than truthful to cover a wrong-doing or be hurtful is not a thing to be praised. Children need more than good working memory for this kind of discernment and the authors of the current study plan to evaluate how and why children lie in future studies.

Juggling lots of information – especially information that is not true – takes a lot of mental effort, and the authors of the new study assert that parents may want to [secretly] praise children for being a smarty-pants even when the “liar, liar” pants are “on fire.” Still, it’s likely better to teach children that for every good reason they have to lie, there’s probably a better reason to tell the truth. Plus, as Mark Twain taught, if you tell the truth, you don’t need to remember anything.


Alloway TP, McCallum F, Alloway RG, & Hoicka E (2015). Liar, liar, working memory on fire: Investigating the role of working memory in childhood verbal deception. Journal of experimental child psychology, 137, 30-8 PMID: 25913892

Evans AD, & Lee K (2013). Emergence of lying in very young children. Developmental psychology, 49 (10), 1958-63 PMID: 23294150

Popliger M, Talwar V, & Crossman A (2011). Predictors of children’s prosocial lie-telling: Motivation, socialization variables, and moral understanding. Journal of experimental child psychology, 110 (3), 373-92 PMID: 21663918

Talwar V, Gordon HM, & Lee K (2007). Lying in the elementary school years: verbal deception and its relation to second-order belief understanding. Developmental psychology, 43 (3), 804-10 PMID: 17484589

Talwar V, & Lee K (2008). Social and cognitive correlates of children’s lying behavior. Child development, 79 (4), 866-81 PMID: 18717895

Image via file404 / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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