Children and Understanding Lies

Do children know when someone is lying? One researcher, writing recently in the journal Science, says children are capable of understanding the concepts of self-interest and unconscious bias — and can even see through a lie.

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If you're having trouble knowing who to believe in our last report, you might want to take a hint from your kids. A researcher writing recently in the journal Science has found a way to show how some important insights develop in young children. She found that children are capable of understanding the concepts of self-interest and unconscious bias. They can even see through a lie. Michelle Trudeau reports.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU reporting:

Most adults quite readily take what they hear or read with a grain of salt, but what about young children? When does the seed of doubt start to appear in them? Child development researcher Candice Mills from Yale University wanted to study this.

Ms. CANDICE MILLS (Yale University): We worked with children from the age of six through the age of 12, which is about between kindergarten and sixth grade.

TRUDEAU: And for this study, Mills told the children stories about competitions, in which it was not clear who the true winner was. Here's Mills testing a nine-year-old boy.

Ms. MILLS: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Child: Yeah.

Ms. MILLS: Stephanie is playing Candyland with a friend of hers. She really wants to win since she'll get a prize afterwards if she wins. Her...

TRUDEAU: In the story, the main character claims to be the winner of the game.

Ms. MILLS: We then asked children a simple question: how much did they believe the contestant in the story.

How much do you believe Stephanie?

Unidentified Child: Not really too much.

Ms. MILLS: Why do you say that?

Unidentified Child: Because she just wants to win.

Ms. MILLS: So why do you think she's saying that?

Unidentified Child: Because she can win.

Ms. MILLS: Do you think she is lying?

Unidentified Child: Yeah.

Ms. MILLS: OK. Good.

And so what we found by asking these sort of questions is that as early as age eight, they know that if someone really wants to win, that it might influence the way that they see the outcome of the event.

TRUDEAU: These second-graders have become what Mills calls selectively cynical; that is they understand how self-interest might influence behavior. Mills also found that younger children, the kindergartners, had not yet developed this capacity for selective cynicism. In a second part of the study, Mills probed the older children further. Why, she asked, would someone say they had won a competition when, in fact, they hadn't?

Ms. MILLS: When adults hear this sort of question, they come up with two possible explanations. One is that the person was lying because he really wanted to win. The other is that the person was biased by their self-interest. So because they wanted to win so much, it skewed the way they actually saw the events.

TRUDEAU: And here again, Mills found a clear developmental difference. It was not until the children were at least 12, in sixth grade, that they developed the capacity to see that unconscious bias could influence the way a person reports an event.

Ms. MILLS: The sixth-graders understand that someone could be motivated in ways that they're not aware of, so because they want to see the world in a certain way, they might actually see it that way, and it's not intentional.

TRUDEAU: Being able to assess the unconscious motivations of others is a remarkable achievement, says John Flavell from Stanford University, a research pioneer of children's cognitive development. This study is important, he says, because it charts the emergence of insight.

Mr. JOHN FLAVELL (Stanford University): What it shows--because the development of children's understanding of people, their understanding of people's psychology, how people are put together, in particular, how their self-interest will affect what they'll say and do.

TRUDEAU: So by second grade, around age eight, children are able to understand that a person will lie out of self-interest.

Mr. FLAVELL: But only the oldest kids, the sixth-graders, seem to be catching on to the idea that not only will people lie, but they will tell unintentional untruths. They'll be biased, in other words. Now kids develop the understanding that that's the way people's minds work.

TRUDEAU: Researcher Candice Mills hopes next to track when children are able to accurately assess the truth or bias behind real world events, like product advertising or political messages. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

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