We often think of lying as antisocial, but of course there is the flip side of the coin: People also tell lies prosocial lies — falsehoods that are motivated by politeness or compassion. Do kids engage in this sort of deception, and, if so, when does the behavior first appear? Studies suggest that it depends on a child’s cognitive development, emotional savvy, cultural training, and overall “agreeableness.”
There are times when we approve of lying, when we believe it’s the better option. For instance, suppose a would-be murderer comes to your door. He asks you to tell him where his intended victim is hiding. Should you tell him the truth? Most people would say no. The good of preventing harm outweighs the good of telling the truth. But how do children wrestle with these considerations?
The youngest kids will have trouble because they lack the developmental skills to tell lies. As I explain elsewhere, an effective liar needs to have solid “theory of mind” skills, and show advanced levels of self-control.
But as children approach the age of 4, things change. They develop more psychological savvy, and — eventually — they may begin to tell prosocial lies: fibs designed to spare other people’s feelings, or otherwise protect people from harm. The tricky part is verifying when, during development, children take this step.
We know that even young toddlers show sympathy and kindness toward others (Tousignant et al 2017; Warneken 2013). But bending the truth to be nice? It’s is a complicated, cognitively demanding business.
In addition to the normal workload associated with lying — figuring out how to fool someone else, and keeping the details of your story straight — you also have to understand the perspective of your intended beneficiary, and anticipate the effects of your actions.
What would happen to this person if I told the truth? What would happen if I lied? What should I say to produce the best outcome?
It’s a lot to juggle, and the problem doesn’t only arise when a murderer comes to your door. We face daily decisions about telling the truth — social interactions where our blunt honesty would hurt another person’s feelings, or otherwise cause harm. And this is true for children as well as adults.
When does it all come together? Studies suggest that some kids might begin telling prosocial lies during the preschool years. But the experiments can be hard to interpret, because they don’t always pinpoint a child’s motive for lying.
Is a child lying to protect another person? Or is the child motivated by something else — like the desire to avoid conflict, or court social approval? On closer examination, it appears that true, selfless, prosocial lying hasn’t been well-established in very young children.
Some kids may tell prosocial lies at an early age — especially when they pay special attention to the feelings and needs of others. But overall, studies don’t show clear evidence of widespread, spontaneous, prosocial lying until children are 6 or 7 years old.
Here’s a look at some key experiments.
Children tell lies about another person’s (goofy) appearance
We’ve all experienced the dilemma: Somebody asks us to evaluate his or her physical appearance, and we’re conflicted. We’d like to avoid lying, but if we tell the truth, our listener will be offended or hurt. How do kids handle this situation?
Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee addressed this question by putting approximately 100 children, aged 3-7, to the test. Each child began by meeting a friendly adult with a camera. The adult showed the child how to use the camera, and then asked to be photographed. But the adult also asked for feedback:
“Before you take a picture of me, do I look okay for the picture?”
Most children answered “yes,” but it wasn’t true. Throughout the interaction, the adult’s nose had been marked with a bright splotch of red lipstick. And the kids had definitely noticed it. At the end of the experiment, they confided to another person that the camera-wielding adult had not looked “okay.”
Did these kids lie in order to be kind? Maybe, but other interpretations are possible.
They might, for instance, have felt too intimidated to say anything negative to the adult. In a follow-up discussion, only five children — all of whom were older than 68 months — provided clear evidence that their motives were prosocial. They explained that they hadn’t wanted to embarrass the person (Talwar and Lee 2002).
So while many children lied, we can’t tell how of them were chiefly concerned with protecting the feelings of another person. Where else can we look for evidence? Let’s consider how children respond when they receive gifts.
Children tell lies about their enthusiasm for an unwanted gift
In another experiment, researchers gave more than 225 children an undesirable present (a gift-wrapped bar of soap). The children ranged in age from 3 to 11 years. How would they react?
When the gift-giver asked the children if they liked the undesirable gift, most kids said yes, and this response was especially likely if the kids had received parental coaching immediately before receiving the gift: When their parents urged them to act appreciative no matter how they felt, kids were more likely to tell a polite lie (Talwar et al 2007).
But once again, we must consider the question of motive. Even before the children participated in the gift-giving experiment, they had been exposed to parental and cultural messages about etiquette. Like children all around the world, they had probably been trained to show polite gratitude in response to receiving a gift.
We therefore can’t assume that these children really met our criteria – that they were motivated by a desire to spare the feelings of the gift-giver. What’s needed is an experiment that puts the spotlight on empathy. And thankfully, we’ve got one.
Children tell lies to cheer up someone who is sad
Suppose you drew a picture — an awkward, badly-executed sketch. You show it to a child and ask for feedback. Will you get brutal honesty? Or will the child tell a lie to avoid hurting your feelings?
That’s what Felix Warneken and Emily Orlins wanted to know, so they recruited 80 kids (ranging in age from 5 to 11 years), and put each of them in a potentially awkward situation. It went like this.
First, an adult supervisor would give a child a collection of hand-drawn sketches to evaluate. The child was instructed to sort the sketches into two piles: one for good drawings, the other for bad ones. Nothing too awkward yet.
But then a second adult would enter the room, an unfamiliar woman carrying a drawing in her hand. It was clearly a bad drawing — something that the researchers had created to look bad on purpose. They’d even tested it on a focus group in a previous study, to prove that human beings respond negatively to it. So it was reasonable to assume that kids would feel the same way.
And here’s where the awkwardness began. The woman would hold up the drawing and announce that she was the artist.”I made this.” What happened next? It depended on the experimental condition.
A child who had been randomly assigned to the sad condition would hear the artist say that she felt sad and disappointed. She had worked very hard on the drawing, and she was upset at the poor results.
By contrast, a child who had been randomly assigned to the neutral condition would witness something very different. The artist would say that she didn’t care that her sketch turned out badly. She felt fine.
Finally, the child would be asked to make a judgment about this drawing — right there, in front of the artist. Should the artist’s sketch go in the good pile? Or the bad pile?
If kids were willing to tell lies motivated by empathic concern, their responses should depend on the artist’s display of feeling. They should be more likely to rate a bad sketch as “good” after hearing that the artist is sad.
And that’s what Warneken and Orlins found – at least among the older kids in their study. Children aged 7 and up were more likely to place the sketch in the “good” pile if they had heard the artist express sadness. And the effect was especially striking for 10- and 11-year-olds. In the neutral condition, when the artist said she didn’t care, children this age almost never bothered to lie. But when the artist said was sad, 10- and 11-year-olds lied about 70% of the time.
By contrast, 5-year-olds didn’t reliably distinguish between the “sad” and “neutral” conditions, and overall, they tended to place the sketch in the “bad” pile.
So in this experiment, many children showed evidence of lying to spare the feelings of someone else. They lied to make the artist feel better, just as an adult might.
It wasn’t true for the youngest kids, but Warneken and Orlins found a way to change that. In another trial of the experiment, they provided children with a role model – an adult who behaved charitably. This role model told the kids she wanted to make the artist “feel good,” and then placed one of the artist’s (poor) sketches in the “good” pile.
That was enough for the 5-year-olds to get the message. When it was their turn to judge, they, too, distinguished between the “sad” and “neutral” conditions. They were more likely to place a sketch on the “good” pile when the artist seemed sad (Warneken and Orlins 2015).
Children tell lies to protect innocent victims
In the experiments we’ve discussed so far, the question was whether or not kids tell lies in order to spare the feelings of the recipient. We’ve found that they do, at least by the age of 7 years.
But what about the murderer at the door? In that scenario, the liar isn’t trying to make the recipient of the lie – the would-be murderer – feel better. The goal is to mislead the recipient into doing something against his own interests, and thereby protect a third party.
It’s a more complex set of issues to keep track of. You have to do all the usual mental work required for deception, but you also have to recognize the needs of a third party. And you need to figure out what sort of lie would be the most helpful to the person you’re protecting.
When the murderer asks, should you simply claim that you don’t know where his intended victim is? Or should you actively throw him off the scent, send him looking in the wrong direction? If so, where should you tell him to look?
In essence, the murderer-at-the-door scenario requires us to understand the perspectives of two different people simultaneously, and to help one by manipulating the other. When do children show signs of mastering this sort of problem?
Answers come from fascinating experiments by Teresa Harvey and her colleagues. Of course, they didn’t actually present children with a would-be murderer. Instead, they asked kids to consider a less distressing ethical question: Would you lie to a would-be thief?
A total of 270 children, ranging in age from 5 to 8 years old, participated. And the central procedure in these experiments involved telling kids a story. The story was presented as a true, and reflective of current events: Two children were hanging out at a local park, but one child couldn’t find the other.
The researchers randomly assigned each child participant to hear a different version of this story:
- Kids randomly assigned to the stealing condition were told that a child named Alex was playing with a “cool toy.” Another child, Jamie, was also at the park, and he wanted to steal the toy. But Alex was hiding, and Jamie (the seeker) didn’t know where to look.
- Kids randomly assigned to the sharing condition were told that a child named Riley was looking for his friend, Dylan, at the local park. Riley had two cookies, and wanted to share one with Dylan. But Dylan was hidden from view, and Riley (the seeker) didn’t know where to look.
After learning those details, kids in both conditions were shown pictures of the park – pictures that revealed the precise location of the hidden child. In addition, an adult provided kids with a map of the park, explaining that she was going to deliver this map to the seeker (Jamie or Riley).
The adult gave kids pens, and asked them to mark the map. “Could you please circle the place where you want the seeker (Jamie or Riley) to look?”
Here, then, was the crux of it: Kids kids could either give away the true location of the hidden child, or deliberately mislead the seeker with a lie. What did they do?
Interestingly, the 5- and 6-year-olds seemed to lie at random. They were no more likely to help or hinder the Seeker, whether it was Jamie the Thief, or Riley the Cookie-Sharing Friend.
But the 7- and 8-year-olds showed a pronounced tendency to tell lies along prosocial lines: They had more than 8 times the odds of lying in the stealing condition than lying in the sharing condition.
Were the younger kids simply clueless about maps? It appears not, because the researchers checked the children’s comprehension of the map procedure. And researchers found they could improve the youngest children’s performance by helping them think about the consequences of theft. In one version of the experiment, the adult telling the story spells out how Alex would feel if Jamie took his toy:
“If Jamie takes Alex’s toy, Alex will be very sad.”
Adding that single sentence to the story was enough to change how the 5- and 6-year-olds behaved on the map test. Now they distinguished between the stealing scenario and the sharing scenario. They were much more likely to circle the wrong location on the map when it meant misleading the would-be thief (Harvey et al 2018).
Does this mean that kids with high levels of empathy are more likely to tell prosocial lies?
Actually, it doesn’t. Empathy is important for developing the ability to tell prosaically lies. Kids need to understand emotions. They need to be able to anticipate how lying or truth-telling will affect another person’s feelings or well-being. But merely having these abilities doesn’t guarantee that a child will engage in compassionate deception.
For example, in a study 144 children, aged 4 to 11 years, Marie-Julie Demedardi and her colleagues gave kids the opportunity to tell a generous, prosocial lie. Each child played a game with a friendly stranger while a referee watched. The child won three rounds in a row, and, each time, the referee awarded the child a prize. The losing opponent looked sad.
Then the referee left the room while the players embarked on a fourth and final round. Once again, the child won, and the opponent was sad. But the referee hadn’t witnessed the game. So the opponent asked the child to tell a lie. When the referee comes back, could you tell her that I won this round, so I could get the last prize?
Would kids lie to benefit their opponent — and give up a prize they had earned for themselves? Fifty of the participating children — about 35% — told the prosocial lie. And although these kids tended to show a greater awareness of emotions, they weren’t rated, on average, as more empathic by their parents (Demedardi et al 2020).
In a second study (of 187 kids aged 8-12 years), the researchers administered a similar test, and looked for links with personality. Demedardi’s team found that generous, prosocial lying was more likely among kids who scored high on personality characteristics that psychologists describe as “agreeable”, like the tendencies to be trusting and cooperative (Demedardi et al 2021).
How does culture affect a child’s tendencies to tell prosocial lies?
As we’ve already seen, young children respond to coaching from adults. If we encourage them to protect another person’s feelings by bending the truth, they tend to oblige us. We also know that the rules of politeness and morality vary from society to society, and kids pick up on these rules.
For example, in China, kids often grow up with the cultural message that it is desirable to tell “modest” lies — to conceal, for example, that one has done a good deed. Compared with kids in Western countries, they are more likely to view this kind of lying as morally acceptable (Lee et al 1997; Fu et al 2010; Cameron et al 2012).
And when researchers compared children living in three different cultural enviroments — rural Samoa, urban China, and urban United States — they found that Samoan kids were more likely than other children to judge lies negatively, and less likely to view prosocial lying as virtuous (Guo and Rochat 2022).
What about self-interest? Are kids sometimes dissuaded from telling “noble lies” because they don’t want to pay the cost?
There’s no doubt that telling prosocial lies can carry a cost, and studies show that children take these costs into account (Guo and Rochat 2022).
For instance, in experiments on Canadian children, kids were less likely to say they liked an undesirable gift if they believed this prosocial lie would prevent them from obtaining a better one. And the effect is bigger for younger children: Preschoolers were less likely than older kids to tell prosocial lies when the personal cost is high (Popliger et al 2011).
There is also evidence that kids are more willing to tell prosocial lies if they feel a social connection to the beneficiary. In a controlled experiment, young adolescents (11- and 12-year-olds) were more likely to tell a prosocial lie if they thought it would benefit a fellow team member (Sierksma et al 2019).
For more information about the development of lying, see my article, “At what age do children begin to tell lies?” In addition, check out these Parenting Science articles:
“Punitive environments encourage children to tell lies”
“Bad role models: What happens when adults lie to children?”
“Why kids rebel: What kids believe about the legitimacy of authority”
And for information about fostering empathy and kindness in children, see these opens in a new windowevidence-based tips.
References: Prosocial lies
Cameron CA, Lau C, Fu G, Lee K. 2012. Development of children’s moral evaluations of modesty and self-promotion in diverse cultural settings. J Moral Educ. 41(1):61-78.
Demedardi MJ, Brechet C, Gentaz E, Monnier C. 2020. Prosocial lying in children between 4 and 11 years of age: The role of emotional understanding and empathy. J Exp Child Psychol. 203:105045.
Demedardi MJ, Stephan Y, and Monnier C. 2021. On the importance of being agreeable: The impact of personality traits on prosocial lying in children International Journal of Behavioral Development 45(6): 484-491.
Fu G, Brunet MK, Lv Y, Ding X, Heyman GD, Cameron CA, Lee K. 2010. Chinese Children’s Moral Evaluation of Lies and Truths-Roles of Context and Parental Individualism-Collectivism Tendencies. Infant Child Dev. 19(5):498-515.
Guo CX and Rochat P. 2022. Children’s cost-benefit assessment of lies across three cultures. J Exp Child Psychol. 217:105355.
Harvey T, Davoodi T, Blake PR. 2018. Young children will lie to prevent a moral transgression. J Exp Child Psychol. 2018 Jan;165:51-65.
Lee K, Cameron CA, Xu F, And GF, Board J. 1997. Chinese and Canadian Children’s Evaluations of Lying and Truth Telling: Similarities and Dfferences in the Context of pro-and Antisocial Behaviors. Child Dev. 68(5):924-934.
Popliger M, Talwar V, Crossman A. 2011. Predictors of children’s prosocial lie-telling: Motivation, socialization variables, and moral understanding. J Exp Child Psychol. 110(3):373-92
Sierksma J, Spaltman M, Lansu TAM. 2019. Children tell more prosocial lies in favor of in-group than out-group peers. Dev Psychol. 55(7):1428-1439.
Talwar V and Lee K. 2002. Emergence of white lie-telling in children between 3 and 7 years of age. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. 48:160–181.
Talwar V, Murphy SM, Lee K. 2007. White lie-telling in children for politeness purposes. Int J Behav Dev. 2007 Jan;31(1):1-11.
Tousignant B, Eugène F, Jackson PL. 2017. A developmental perspective on the neural bases of human empathy. Infant Behav Dev. 48(Pt A):5-12.
Warneken F. 2013. The development of altruistic behavior: helping in children and chimpanzees. Social Research 80 (2):431-442.
Warneken F and Orlins E. 2015. Children tell white lies to make others feel better. Br J Dev Psychol. 2015 Sep;33(3):259-70.
Portions of “Compassionate Deception: Do children tell prosocial lies” include text derived from an earlier version of this article, written by the same author.
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Last modified 4/2022