When my son was little he told whoppers. And not just occasionally. At one point it seemed that every other sentence that came out of his mouth was pure fabrication. As a parent I have to admit I was a bit concerned. So I did some research. And felt a lot better...
Here's the good and bad news. About half of us lie. A study done in 2009 showed that lying does vary-- some people don't really tell any, some tell a few and some tell many. The good news is that the prolific liars are rare-- about 5% in this study. There are even "mega" liars, who tell 20+ lies per day. These folks are only about 1% of the population and if you hang around them for a hot minute you can quickly figure out who they are.
Aside from these Mega Liars one of the biggest predictors of lying is age. Kids under the age of 2 are actually VERY honest. They have not figured out how to lie yet. Teenagers lie about 60% of the time. For most people lying peaks in adolescence. Some professions have more liars than others (business and tech being the top liar-rich professions). But of course those are generalizations so please don't go accusing every VP or techie of lying.
One piece of information I found immensely helpful in regards to children lying was understanding more about moral development. Children are not born with an inherent ability to think about morality. So to tell a 4 year old not to lie because "it's not nice and it makes Mommy sad" is NOT developmentally sound. They don't have the moral development to understand that. I found the following chart to be very informative:
So basically if a kid under the age of 8 is lying please don't lecture them about the morality issue. Just help them understand what's in it for them if they are truthful. How lying is going to get them into more trouble and how telling the truth will get them more friends, more accolades or more ice cream. Because that is the level that their brain is capable of understanding things at that point.
Now some of you are probably saying "well, not MY child! When he was just 3 years old he was already taking care of other children's hurt feelings and sharing because he knew it was important to be kind". I hate to break it to you, but your kid only did that when you were watching. Kids know what parents want from them and because parents are necessary for children's survival they will learn how to please parents. Where the rubber meets the road is what your kid does when they think no one is watching. And let me be clear, before the age of 8 they do what is best for THEM, not what you or I would think is moral. And that's OK. That's just part of being a kid with a brain that is not fully cooked yet.
So how do we think of adults who lie? Well one way to think about it is that those adults are developmentally stunted. Seriously. They may have grown up in stressful conditions without enough positive investment by good adults and literally they may have stalled in their moral development. That does not mean that we should not hold them accountable, but it may help you have more compassion for their impulse to lie to get out of a scrape. It takes bravery to face the music and bravery, I would argue, can only be learned if you have enough emotional support early on.
Another possibility is actually neuroscience. Researchers have found that people who lie a lot have more white matter in their frontal cortex than more honest folks. White matter helps brain connectivity, so that messages can travel at high speeds between different brain areas. This allows a person to think quickly on their feet. So if I ask you where you were last night and you are an average person you may stall, fidget, say "um", "er" and eventually after a second or two cough up a semi-believable lie. But someone with extra white matter in the frontal area of the brain (and also less gray matter, which helps with inhibition) will quickly and without pause churn out a very believable story. We assume that since they did not hesitate it is the truth because for most of us lying on the spot like that is difficult. One study using functional MRI's showed that "liars had 26% more white matter compared with anti-social, non-liars, and 22% more than the controls. Liars also had 14% less grey matter than the controls." The researcher noted that lying is a very complex task that requires the cooperation of different brain regions to be done well. “It’s a bit like being a mind reader. You have to think, 'what does she know about the situation, what does she not know’. You also have to suppress anxious emotions and the automatic impulse to tell the truth." Interestingly "Autistic children, who find it very difficult to lie, develop white matter at a sixth the rate of ordinary children." So their difficulty lying may be due to a lag in developing this white matter.
Which leads me to my good/bad conclusion about my son. I decided that he is probably one of these people who has more white matter. For him lying is easier. As a young kid he had not yet had enough experience to realize that lying was ultimately going to get him into trouble. As far as he could tell at the ripe old age of 8 he was getting away with it. Which he was most of the time. So we talked a lot about how even if someone believes you in that moment they may find out about the lie later and it could cause you to lose friends. It took a few years of having these talks and also giving him a 24 "grace period" during which after telling one of his fabulously believable whoppers he could come clean with us with no repercussions. I am not kidding you it was impressive the lies he admitted to. He was GOOD. His lies were smooth, plausible and effortless. I would have never spotted them if he had not later confessed. Which is why I eventually concluded that he has that different brain (he's also great at other tasks that require the coordination of different brain areas). So the way I think of it, some people are wired such that lying is easier and they get caught less often. Which, if you start in childhood, can become an easy habit to keep up into adulthood. At that point it is just second-nature and harder to stop. Again I am not saying that you should give people a pass even if you are holding their brain imaging in your hot-little-hands as they lie to you. But it may help you have more compassion about how they developed that nasty habit to begin with. I would argue that if we all had that increase in white matter and less gray matter we may ALL lie a lot more. Most of us probably don't lie much because, in all honesty, we just aren't that good at it and we don't like getting busted.
I am pleased to say that my son no longer lies reflexively. Well, as far as I know. Because believe me, he was darned good at it. But if I do catch him in one, while he still has to face the music, I try to be compassionate and think that it's hard not to use a super-power when you have one.
Wishing you health and happiness,
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Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.