By Cai McCann
Tall tale, misrepresentation, fish story, distortion, falsehood, little white lie…
Lies come in many different forms and levels of gravity. As humans, we not only have the capacity to spin tall tales, but we dominate the animal kingdom in our excellence at this sophisticated and demanding task. During the act of telling a lie, our brains show heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain located behind the forehead that is usually associated with decision-making, planning, working memory, and social cognition (Fuster 2009). (If you want to get technical, deception takes place in the anterior cingulate cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and parietal cortex (Wright 2013)!)
Boom. So we all have the capacity to lie, and often we do. “Why, yes, I’d be happy to [insert unpleasant task].” “I’m fine, honestly.” Even, “just one more episode.” While the motivations and intentions can vary vastly (from altruistic to socially-conforming to self-serving), lying remains a potential habit for many people. The thing is, even though we might be able to observe and measure the lying brain, there are so many intricacies and such depth to the processes that embody the act of lying. When does it start? Is it learned through societal constructs or is it inborn? Once we start lying, what is to prevent us from descending down that slippery slope as we progress through life? What are the consequences of these behaviors on the developing individual?
There is a lot to unpack with these questions. University of Toronto’s Kang Lee attempts to unpack at least the early stages of lying in kids. Lee, a psychologist and professor for the University, studied 42 preschool-aged children in China over a period of 40 months. The children were randomly assigned to an experimental or control group; both groups were taught how to play a hide-and-seek game, but only the experimental group was taught how to deceive the opponent in order to win the game. Deception was rewarded only in the experimental group, not the control group.
Interestingly, the results indicate that learning and using these skills of lying and deception causally enhanced cognitive skills for these children. Compared to the children in the control group, those in the experimental group significantly improved executive function and theory of mind skills, outperforming their counterparts in standardized executive function and theory of mind assessments. Theory of mind, mind you, is essentially the capacity to understand another person’s intentions and beliefs. These cognitive skills also include mental problem solving, perspective-taking, and executive function skills (think: self-control and regulation). Essentially it takes more brain power to lie than tell the truth. This extra brain power may mean greater cognitive function (Ding 2018).
What does this mean? This new finding is not an outright endorsement to lie as children; however, it does point to the value of encouraging fun, interactive games that challenge creativity and interpersonal skills during childhood. Moreover, research such as that of Lee’s lab challenges societal preconceptions about lying, pushing the boundaries of what we define and value as creative versus problematic.
With these enhanced cognitive skills, it is no wonder these skills survived in society. Lying harkens back to a long evolutionary history of humans honing their ability to deceive but truly came to a head with the development of verbal communication. This capacity to manipulate others without physical force may have conferred advantages in competing for resources and mates. In present day, lying as a research field also represents a rich and vast frontier for interdisciplinary work ranging from physiology to biology to neuroscience and more; much remains to be explored. But for the time being, maybe we can look at it as the silver lining as an indicator of developmental cognitive milestone for children.
Ding, X. P., Heyman, G. D., Sai, L., Yuan, F., Winkielman, P., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2018). Learning to deceive has cognitive benefits. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 176, 26–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2018.07.008
Fuster, J. M. (2009). Prefrontal Cortex. In L. R. Squire (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Neuroscience (pp. 905–908). https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-008045046-9.01118-9
Wright, M., Bishop, D. T., Jackson, R., & Abernethy, B. (2013). Brain regions concerned with the identification of deceptive soccer moves by higher-skilled and lower-skilled players. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00851