The Science of Deception

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Via Arts and Letters Daily is a fascinating article about lying, which reminds me a little about a study of ravens I once encountered there in that it considers the issue from the perspective of what it says about cognitive development.

Although we think of truthfulness as a young child's paramount virtue, it turns out that lying is the more advanced skill. A child who is going to lie must recognize the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and be able to convincingly sell that new reality to someone else. Therefore, lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn't require. "It's a developmental milestone," Talwar has concluded. [bold added]
As with the cunning avian scavengers, we see that lying requires a child to have a conception of another's mind distinct from his own, a significant cognitive milestone that is easy for adults to take for granted.

The article gets even more interesting later on, in part because the findings it reports -- and how the scientists interpret them (up to a point) -- are interesting, and in part because of how seriously the usefulness of the results stands to be compromised by the conventional wisdom regarding certain philosophical issues.

As an example of the latter, the article speaks at one point of indiscriminate lying being more or less "socialized out of" children by a certain age, and speaks of the following "demonstration" that social pressure is more important than objective reality in curtailing it:
[S]ometimes the researcher will read the child a short storybook before she asks about the peeking. One story read aloud is The Boy Who Cried Wolf -- the version in which both the boy and the sheep get eaten because of his repeated lies. Alternatively, they read George Washington and the Cherry Tree, in which young George confesses to his father that he chopped down the prized tree with his new hatchet. The story ends with his father's reply: "George, I'm glad that you cut down the tree after all. Hearing you tell the truth instead of a lie is better than if I had a thousand cherry trees."

Now, which story do you think reduced lying more? When we surveyed 1,300 people, 75 percent thought The Boy Who Cried Wolf would work better. However, this famous fable actually did not cut down lying at all in Talwar's experiments. In fact, after hearing the story, kids lied even a little more than normal. Meanwhile, hearing George Washington and the Cherry Tree -- even when Washington was replaced with a nondescript character, eliminating the potential that his iconic celebrity might influence older kids -- reduced lying a sizable 43 percent in kids. Although most kids lied in the control situation, the majority hearing George Washington told the truth.

The shepherd boy ends up suffering the ultimate punishment, but the fact that lies get punished is not news to children. Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts children from learning how their lies affect others. In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don't lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age -- learning to get caught less often.

Ultimately, it's not fairy tales that stop kids from lying -- it's the process of socialization. But the wisdom in The Cherry Tree applies: According to Talwar, parents need to teach kids the worth of honesty, just like George Washington's father did, as much as they need to say that lying is wrong. [bold and link added]
Rereading the fable of the Cherry Tree indicates that the full extent of George Washington's father's teaching "the worth of honesty" was in expressing approval for the truth. Showing a respect for the truth is important, but not simply because lying "affects others".

Ultimately -- as most adults grasp on some level as shown by which fable they thought would be effective -- lying is wrong because, as Ayn Rand once put it, the need to concoct new lies to cover old ones results in an all-out war against the very thing one must apprehend in order to live and flourish: reality. In short, lying ultimately harms the liar himself.

The counterintuitive results here tell me not that there isn't enough "socialization" (whatever that is) of children, but that while deception might be a cognitive landmark, an even higher level of development is an understanding of why honesty is moral and practical. Popularly, the moral and the practical are, thanks to altruism, regarded as unrelated and even antithetical. Furthermore, anyone who still has a conscience in such a milieu will act often on what he thinks is moral when there is a conflict. The kids learned only a little about the value of honesty and were mainly shamed into being more honest by the fable of the tree.

I think that the odd results here are due to the fact that the connection between the apparently inconsequential lying called for by these studies and the whoppers seen in "The Boy Who Cried 'Wolf'" is too abstract for most children to grasp, and so they continue to lie in unimportant circumstances. On the other hand, many children have not fully grasped altruism (or how anti-life it is), still want to be good, and want their parents' approval, hence the fable of the cherry tree is more effective.

Reared by parents whose professed moral code conflicts with the requirements for their own survival, most children will end up rejecting lying -- including self-deception -- sometimes when its consequences are obviously impractical and adopting it at other times as a survival strategy when "morality" is "too impractical".

And thus it is that so many children are prevented by their parents and teachers however well-meaning, from reaching an important further milestone in their development: a grasp of the highly abstract moral and practical case for honesty.

-- CAV


: Corrected a typo.


Burgess Laughlin said...

I have not read the cited article, but the following passage, quoted from it, deserves comments:

[...] A child who is going to lie must recognize the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and be able to convincingly sell that new reality to someone else. Therefore, lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn't require. "It's a developmental milestone," [...]

1. Talwar's statement is false. Talwar is assuming a Biblical-Kantian view of truth-telling and lying: Speaking the truth requires no mental effort, only the robotic action of an obedient being following a contextless universal rule (always tell the truth, no matter what), one written on a golden tablet.

In fact, speaking truthfully requires at least as much mental activity as lying:
- identifying the facts of reality;
- formulating a truth (a statement drawn logically from the facts of reality);
- knowing that acting on principle is necessary, regardless of social pressures to do otherwise;
-knowing that speaking truthfully is not appropriate in all circumstances; context matters.

Talwar's view that lying is less mentally active than speaking truthfully is, I suggest, an artifact of the ancient view that truthful people are "simple" and liars are "cunning" (which is itself a reflection of the view that intelligence can't be trusted because of its machinations).

2. Note too that Talwar conflates honesty with (universal) truth-telling, and dishonesty with lying. He switches back and forth between terms, raising my suspicions of the clarity of his own thinking--or his motives. In fact, lying (to gain an objective value in a situation free of threats of initiated violence) is only an instance of dishonesty, not the same as dishonesty. (Honesty is the recognition of facts of reality; wrongful lying to others is merely an application of dishonesty.)

To treat lying as the instantiation of dishonesty is to treat dishonesty as a frozen abstraction.

3. Note in the description of Ayn Rand's views quoted later, Ayn Rand did not say all lying is wrong. She describes, instead, the lies of a con-man. She knew what Talwar does not know: ethics is contextual.

P. S. -- Gus, thank you for yesterday mentioning my weblog, Making Progress.

Gus Van Horn said...


I agree with most of your comment, but I do not agree that one must accept a Biblical-Kantian view of truth to conclude that one must make certain integrations about how other human beings function in order to be able to lie.

Having said that, your larger point, that honesty requires more mental effort than dishonesty is precisely my larger point.

Finally, I do appreciate your delving into the contextual nature of ethics and of the difference between dishonesty and lying, which are both very important considerations in any serious evaluation of lying, scientific or otherwise.


cyrano said...


What do you think of the validity of a scientific study that looks at what influences a child to tell the truth, or conversely to not lie -- reality or socialization -- by reading two stories?

How can you really judge the importance of reality to a child, when reality is not in the picture except as the background for a story in which animals talk?

Why don't the authors go on to study real-life consequences to lying? What happens when the child sees someone get hurt in reality, instead of a make-believe story?

And, as ya'll point out, to what degree can the children be expected to grasp that a make-believe story tells them something about reality? How much abstract thought are the kids capable of? (When, again, they are expected to get an abstraction from a story and apply it theoretically to practical situations!!)

It seems to me the study was invalid from the get-go.


Gus Van Horn said...

I think this is typical of much of the science that attempts to understand the mind today: Very interesting questions, flawed and/or incomplete attack of the problem, and major difficulties with interpretation.

Despite all that, I found the article thought -provoking.