Our Little Lie Detectors

Ryan Jacobs reviews research that suggests kids know how to spot a liar:

Studies have already shown that kids work as incredibly precise detectors of straight-up lies. Outside the realm of bold-faced falsehoods, though, children perform quite brilliantly, too. Subtler and more elegant deceit—the kind where the truth is told but other important elements are shaded or concealed—doesn’t go unnoticed by six-year-olds either, according to a new study published in Cognition. Unbeknownst to their teachers and parents, young kids are apparently equipped with the perceptive powers of seasoned Cold War spies. The new paper suggests that they don’t appreciate when they’re being misled with lies of omission and even adjust their behavior based on a previous record of deceit.

Eliana Dockterman explains how the experiments worked:

Researchers at MIT studied how 42 six and seven-year-olds evaluated information. … [T]he children were separated into two groups: one group got a toy that had four buttons, each of which performed a different function—lights, a windup mechanism, etc.; the other group got a toy that looked the same but only had one button, which activated the windup mechanism.

After the two groups of children had played with their respective toys, the researchers put on a show: a teacher puppet taught a student puppet how to use the toy, but only showed the student puppet the windup function. For the kids playing with the one-button toy, this was all the information; but for the kids playing with the four-button toy, the teacher puppet had left out crucial information. The researchers then asked all the children to rate the teacher puppet in terms of how helpful it was on a scale from 1 to 20. The kids with the multi-functional toy noticed that the puppet hadn’t told them the whole story and gave it a lower score than the children with the single-function toys did.