The truth about lying

How many times have you lied so far today? If you’re like most people, you have told at least a few—and you’ve had lots of practice since childhood.

Ask Matthew Gingo, assistant professor of psychology at Wheaton College. He knows all about lying because he studies it—specifically the social and moral development of children through the lens of how they reason about telling lies.

Understanding what children—from nursery school through middle school—lie about and how they decide when to lie and about what offers valuable insight into cognitive and moral development, says Gingo.

“My research program focuses on children’s lying, particularly their judgments about when lying is all right. They get lots of messages about not lying, but we also know that lying is pretty prevalent in our society. Somewhere along the line children learn that it’s all right to lie in certain circumstances, it’s not all right to lie in others. Learning to delineate between the two is an interesting developmental process. That’s what I study,” he says.

The professor and the Wheaton students who have been assisting him with his research for two years have been learning a lot about the subject by observing behavior and interviewing children at the Elisabeth Amen Nursery School, a laboratory preschool located on campus, and with elementary and middle school students in the local school system.

Based on that work, Gingo and his research assistants, seniors Samuel Sproule and Brittany Burke, co-authored a paper on how children determine the permissibility of lying in altruistic situations and how that changes as they grow. They will present the paper in August at the international American Psychological Association conference in Denver, Colo.

Gingo says looking into lying is important research because it sheds light on issues of social justice and fairness.

“Lying shifts the balance of power and I think that what you see in society is in many instances people think it’s all right to lie when they’re in subordinate positions,” he says. “Children are in subordinate positions, right? In our society, adults are the power figures and children have to do what they’re told, right? Being a good kid is doing what you’re told, but children aren’t always told to do good things. When you look at children’s lying what you can see is a sense of moral resistance.”

“Sometimes they lie to level the playing field with the authority figure, and that’s a pretty advanced sort of cognition. So it’s important to look at lying because lying is a gateway into understanding how children choose to resist dictates that they disagree with,” says Gingo. “Sometimes those are immoral dictates, sometimes those are dictates or directives that transgress their personal boundaries or personal jurisdiction. The research can really point us in the direction of how children are thinking about social issues that are worth lying about, and which issues they think that parents or authorities have legitimate jurisdiction over.”