Lying in the Elementary School Years: Verbal Deception and Its Relation
to Second-Order Belief Understanding
Heidi M. Gordon
Simon Fraser University
University of Toronto
The development of lying to conceal one’s own transgression was examined in school-age children.
172) between 6 and 11 years of age were asked not to peek at the answer to a trivia
question while left alone in a room. Half of the children could not resist temptation and peeked at the
answer. When the experimenter asked them whether they had peeked, the majority of children lied.
However, children’s subsequent verbal statements, made in response to follow-up questioning, were not
always consistent with their initial denial and, hence, leaked critical information to reveal their deceit.
Children’s ability to maintain consistency between their initial lie and subsequent verbal statements
increased with age. This ability is also positively correlated with children’s 2nd-order belief scores,
suggesting that theory of mind understanding plays an important role in children’s ability to lie
lying, verbal deception, theory of mind, second-order belief, children
Lying, in essence, is theory of mind in action. Lying refers to the
act by which one deliberately makes a false statement with intent
to instill false beliefs into the mind of the statement’s recipient
(Lee, 2000). To lie successfully, lie-tellers must be able to have an
appropriate assessment of their own and the recipients’ mental
states (e.g., whether recipients are ignorant about the true state of
affairs that the lie-tellers themselves have full knowledge of).
Lie-tellers must then construct and produce false statements that
differ from their true beliefs about the state of affairs. Further, the
false statements must be carefully constructed such that they will
not arouse suspicion in the recipient. This often requires lie-tellers
to produce verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are consistent with
the false statement but inconsistent with their true beliefs and to
conceal verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are consistent with
their true beliefs but incongruent with the false statement. Thus, by
examining lie-telling behaviors in children, we can gain important
insight about how children learn to use their theory of mind in
everyday life situations for adaptive (or maladaptive) purposes.
A limited number of studies, most of which have involved
young children, have investigated children’s actual lie-telling be-
havior (e.g., Chandler, Fritz, & Hala, 1989;
Sullivan, 1989; Polak & Harris, 1999;
studies have used a modified temptation resistance paradigm in
which children are given the opportunity to commit a transgression
(i.e., peek at a forbidden object) and have an opportunity to
spontaneously lie when they are asked if they peeked. Overall,