They call it the ‘art’ of lying. It may seem simple enough, but it’s also a sophisticated science that places enormous demands on the brain. Children have to learn how to do it. And people with certain frontal lobe injuries may not be able to pull it off at all.
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where you can make the word “liar” with the letters provided.
Let’s face it – we all lie at some point. Often, it’s a little bit of pretense to smooth out human relationships (“yes, your homemade pie was delicious!”). Scientists have been analysing the behaviour to understand how the brain processes it. And it all starts with the original con artists – children.
Children first lie purposefully at about age four or five, according to US-based popular science magazine Scientific American. While it’s jarring for a parent to realise their child is trying to be deceitful, it’s also a completely natural process and shows important cognitive development.
To lie, a child has to use deontic reasoning – the ability to identify and understand social rules, and what happens when you cross the line. So, the child learns that his/her action (lying) has a consequence (being punished or getting away with it). Another skill they learn is theory of mind – the ability to imagine what the other person is thinking. For instance, they imagine that their mother may not buy their fib that the dog ate their homework, if she saw the dog eat his dinner just a few minutes ago.
That early understanding of how deception works, and where the limits lie, is what informs people’s tendency to lie when they are adults. According to a 2003 study by the US-based University of California, Santa Barbara, people make up about two stories a day on average.
A 2015 study published in Netherlands-based scientific journal Acta Psychologica, was the first ever to investigate lying across a person’s entire lifespan. It surveyed over 1,000 participants in the Netherlands, aged between six to 77, and found that children initially have difficulty forming believable lies, but become more adept at it with age. Young adults between 18 and 29 lie with the greatest proficiency, and after the age of 45, people begin to lose this ability.
That’s not to say lying is good or should be a part of our daily behaviour. Ethically, it violates the dictates of conscience. It can also have disastrous consequences in our relationships, causing people to lose trust in each other and creating a general sentiment of resentment and distrust. Even our brains have to be convinced to lie. Brain imaging studies have shown that lying generally requires more effort than telling the truth.
It’s an art and a science, and a whole pot of trouble waiting to be stirred.