Parents should celebrate not only their children’s first word, but also their children’s first lie. “It’s a real hallmark of some pretty awesome cognitive abilities,” explains Dr. Julian Keenan of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab at Montclair State University, who did exactly that. He was pumped when the first fib came because he sees mistruths as “a sign of intelligence”—if not a behavior to encourage. Lying feels easy, especially for adults with office jobs, but it’s a trick that requires some serious mental gymnastics and it’s also a critical tool for navigating the social world. To understand the neurology of a lie is to understand, in a deeper sense, a child’s brain.
Lying can only happen when a child develops what’s called “theory of mind.” That’s the ability for a person to understand they have unique beliefs and desires, and that others do as well. “When a kid becomes good at lying, they’re figuring out what you’re thinking and trying to manipulate your thoughts,” Keenan explains. Animals very, very rarely succeed at this. In a sense, when a child first lies is when they first surpass non-human primates in mental dexterity.
But that moment doesn’t come as early as it seems. There is, after all, a difference between misleading someone and leading someone on a wild goose chase. “When kids first appear to be lying, they can’t possibly be doing what they look like they’re doing,” says Dr. Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester Kid Lab. Instead. “When a kid hears the question, ‘Did you steal a cookie?’, they know that the correct answer is ‘No.’ But they’re not actually answering the questions at all.”
Kidd doesn’t count that as lying, given the fact that it’s less an intentional deception and more of a behavioral response to input from the parent. Real deception is not likely to truly start kicking in until around the age of three. Even then, the lies are very basic–at first.
“The telling of a really good lie can be evidence of the development of better working memory,” says Kidd. It can also indicate the function of a “metacognitive process that allows kids to have empathy when someone experiences something that’s upsetting.”
What’s more, Keenan explains that telling a good lie means the brain is starting to do something even more mind-boggling: recognizing and then suppressing the truth. It’s called inhibition and it’s key for telling a doozy. Kids aren’t the best at this at first. “Even if they have the cognitive ability, they are bad liars because they can’t inhibit as well as a 15-year-old can,” explains Keenan. “They can’t hide their tells.”
There are people who don’t lie for any number of reasons. These might include individuals affected by Asperger’s syndrome, or individuals who’ve had damage to the right hemisphere of their brain. These individuals are generally very blunt and often find themselves at a deep disadvantage, and not just at the poker table. That’s because lying does offer social benefits. People learn to hide their tells because hiding tells is useful. It’s important. It’s a way to be bad, but also a way to both appear and actually be good.
“If you step back and look at the lies you tell on a daily basis, they’re all for the good of society,” says Keenan. That’s why Dr. Keenan has been trying to teach his kid the distinction between inside thoughts and outside thoughts, helping her craft the nuanced understanding of what is true and what is both true and acceptable to say out loud. This is the process of helping a child learn how to lie correctly, something that humans naturally do, but generally, don’t talk about—a lie of omission.
“I want to be lied to,” says Keenan. “And I want my kid to have the ability to lie. It’s a socially fluid vehicle. It’s really really valuable and we teach our kids to do that every single day.”