Deceptive successes in young children.
Any parent knows young children can be cunning deceivers, flashing innocent eyes after raiding the cookie jar or feigning ignorance of a broken vase. Psychologists now report that children as young as 3 years old can mask their emotional expressions intentionally while attempting to deceive an adult, a finding that indicates humans adopt deceptive strategies in the first few years of life.
Adults have difficulty deciphering children's deceptive expressions and often cannot tell the liars from the truth-tellers, says study director Michael Lewis of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in New Brunswick. He and his co-workers report their findings in the May DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY.
The researchers videotaped 15 boys and 18 girls all about 3 years of age, during a laboratory test. Children sat in chairs with their backs to a table and were told that an experimenter was putting out a toy. They were instructed not to peek and told they could play with the toy when the experimenter returned. The experimenter then left the room and returned either when a child peeked at the toy or after 5 minutes. The child was asked, "Did you peek?" If no response was given, the experimenter asked the question once more.
Only four children -- three girls and one boy -- did not peek. A total of 11 children, nine of them boys, admitted to peeking. Another 11, eight of them girls, said they did not look at the toy. Seven children gave no response.
Overall, girls were no more likely than boys to peek, but girls were significantly more apt to deny their offense.
When researchers examined the videotapes, children who peeked and then denied it showed an increase in smiling and a relaxation of facial muscles, Lewis says. Their verbal and facial deceptions were highly persuasive, he notes.
No-response children were less organized in their deception. They did not smile but displayed an increase in nervous touching of their bodies. These youngsters may represent a transitional phase of development from truth-telling to deception, or they may be poor deceivers, Lewis says.
Sixty university students who viewed the videotapes could not distinguish between children who truthfully denied peeking, children who deceptively denied peeking and those who gave no response. Lewis and his colleagues plan to study parents' abilities to identify deception in their own children.
The sex differences in deception are poorly understood, Lewis maintains. Girls may experience more shame after committing a transgression and thus be more likely to deny the act. In addition, he says, evidence that females are more interested in social approval suggests they deceive so as not to displease an experimenter and, possibly, to avoid punishment.
Whatever the case, deception is an adaptive behavior that takes root early in life as part of a child's emerging moral code, Lewis asserts.
"Although parents tell their children not to lie, they also inform them directly and indirectly that deception is sometimes socially appropriate," he says. For instance, a child may be directly told to thank grandmother for buying him a sweater when he really wanted a toy. Indirectly, a child may observe her mother pretend to joyfully welcome a neighbor's visit, although just before the neighbor arrived mother said she did not want to see her.