For the first time, researchers from the University of North Florida and the University of Sheffield, U.K., have discovered that working memory helps children tell better lies.
Dr. Tracy Alloway, a UNF associate professor of psychology, was one of the lead researchers in this new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, between working memory and telling lies. Working memory is the ability to process information. The higher a child’s verbal working memory, the better their ability to process the verbal information necessary to tell a believable lie.
“This research shows that thought processes, specifically verbal working memory, are important to complex social interactions, like lying, because the children needed to juggle multiple pieces of information while keeping the researcher’s perspective in mind,” she said.
A total of 137 children ages 6 to 7 years old participated in this study and had their verbal working memory tested. They were then asked a series of trivia questions written on a card and were aware that the answers were written on the back of the card in different colors, along with a picture. The researchers left the room and instructed the children not to look at the back of the card.
A hidden camera observed the children and showed who looked at the back of the card. When the researchers asked them the answer to a question, those who peeked gave the correct answer. However, when asked entrapment questions regarding the color the answer was written in and the picture, those with higher verbal working memory answered them wrong in order to verbally disguise that they peeked. Those children with lower verbal working memory answered the entrapment questions correctly, verbally revealing that they had peeked.
The children also had their visuo-spatial working memory tested. Visuo-spatial working memory is our ability to process visual information, like images and numbers. In contrast with verbal working memory, there was no association between avoiding entrapment and visuo-spatial working memory ability. This is likely because telling a successful lie requires processing verbal information rather than visual.
“We already know that adults lie in approximately a fifth of their social exchanges lasting 10 or more minutes, so it’s interesting to know why some children are able to tell better lies than others, said Dr. Elena Hoika, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield. This is the first time it has been shown that verbal working memory in particular has strong links to lying, not just any working memory “Parents may sometimes become frustrated when their child lies about sticking their hand in a cookie jar, but we can take heart that the more believable the explanation for the crumbs around their mouth, the more intelligent they are,” said Alloway.