Does Increased Empathy Cause Honest Children to Lie?

Father giving daughter a ride on his shoulders outsideChildren with a strong sense of empathy may be more likely to lie, according to a small study published in Psychological Science. Empathy derives from a well-developed theory of mind, which is the ability to understand that another person’s thoughts or feelings may be different from one’s own.

Young children may struggle with this concept. For example, if a 3-year-old is told what is inside of a box, the child might mistakenly believe other people will know the box’s contents even without being told. The study suggests children with a well-developed theory of mind might use their insights to mislead others.

Lying and Empathy: Is There a Connection?

To explore how lying might correlate with other behaviors, researchers worked with 3-year-olds at a preschool in China. The study began with a hide-and-seek game designed to determine which children had developed the ability to lie.

Researchers told children to hide a piece of candy under one of two cups while the researchers were not looking. They then asked children where the candy was hidden. When a child correctly identified the candy’s location, the researcher kept it, but when a child lied, he or she got to keep the candy—creating a strong incentive to lie.

The team identified 42 children who did not lie during the 10 candy trials. This group of “honest” children was divided into two smaller groups. One group was encouraged to guess what was inside of a pencil case. Upon learning that pencils were not actually inside the case, children were asked to guess what other people might think was inside the case. The children were then reminded that a person who had not seen the inside of the case would not know what was inside. This theory-of-mind training encouraged children to think about other people’s emotions and ideas.

The second group of children received no theory-of-mind training, engaging in a story-based exercise instead. Researchers found the group of children who received theory-of-mind training did better on theory-of-mind tests.

After the training session, researchers repeated the hide-and-seek task. This time, children who underwent theory-of-mind training were more likely to lie about the candy’s location. When the tests were repeated a month later, children with a stronger theory of mind continued to lie more than children in the control group, suggesting the training may have long-term behavioral effects.

The study was small, so more research may be necessary to repeat the results. If the results are repeated, this could mean the same skills parents use to encourage their children to treat others well—such as contemplating another’s feelings or considering how actions will affect another person—may also equip children to lie.

References:

  1. Ding, X. P., Wellman, H. M., Wang, Y., Fu, G., & Lee, K. (2015). Theory-of-mind training causes honest young children to lie. Psychological Science. Doi:10.1177/0956797615604628
  2. Saxena, R. (2015, October 19). An unexpected side-effect of a selfless kid? They may become better liars. Retrieved from http://arstechnica.com/science/2015/10/training-children-to-think-of-others-helps-them-lie/

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  • Hannah

    Hannah

    October 21st, 2015 at 11:53 AM

    Now could someone tell me WHY you would ever want to incentivize lying?

  • Maryellen

    Maryellen

    October 21st, 2015 at 12:30 PM

    What if you believe someone have victimised you with Hypnosis on an on going bases. How woild this person be able to do this? Could he do by the phone or hearing sounds or instruction somehow in your ear? Were do you go to prove this and turn them in. Fbi or Police?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    October 21st, 2015 at 3:12 PM

    Hi Maryellen,

    If you would like to address this, or any other concern, with a therapist, please feel free to use our therapist directory to seek out a mental health professional in your area. You can search here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html

    We wish you the best of luck in your search.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Ben

    Ben

    October 22nd, 2015 at 12:33 PM

    It’s all might, may, could. Nothing is proven, only conjecture and theory

  • Stefan

    Stefan

    October 23rd, 2015 at 3:10 PM

    Why is it that we would want to change a child who is empathetic with others? This is what we should want from everyone, kindness and empathy with others.

  • judy

    judy

    October 24th, 2015 at 12:08 PM

    A question here:
    couldn’t researchers with this intent or desire make it so that their research really ended up saying anything that they would then want it to reflect? Something to think about at least.

  • Joseph

    Joseph

    October 26th, 2015 at 10:43 AM

    One thing that I am not so certain was mentioned too much was that children of a certain age are going to be more prone to lie. And I don’t think that they are even seeing it as lying, I think that it is a stage that many young children go through and eventually they start to understand the difference between right and wrong and will stop using that type of behavior.

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