Emergence of Lying in Very Young Children
Angela D. Evans and Kang Lee
Online First Publication, January 7, 2013. doi: 10.1037/a0031409
Evans, A. D., & Lee, K. (2013, January 7). Emergence of Lying in Very Young Children.
Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031409
Emergence of Lying in Very Young Children
Angela D. Evans
University of Toronto and University of California,
Lying is a pervasive human behavior. Evidence to date suggests that from the age of 42 months onward,
children become increasingly capable of telling lies in various social situations. However, there is limited
experimental evidence regarding whether very young children will tell lies spontaneously. The present
study investigated the emergence of lying in very young children. Sixty-five 2- to 3-year-olds were asked
not to peek at a toy when the experimenter was not looking. The majority of children (80%) transgressed
and peeked at the toy. When asked whether they had peeked at the toy, most 2-year-old peekers were
honest and confessed to their peeking, but with increased age, more peekers denied peeking and thus lied.
However, when asked follow-up questions that assessed their ability to maintain their initial lies, most
children failed to conceal their lie by pretending to be ignorant of the toy’s identity. Additionally, after
controlling for age, children’s executive functioning skills significantly predicted young children’s
tendency to lie. These findings suggest that children begin to tell lies at a very young age.
Keywords: deception, honesty, lie-telling, children, executive function
Lying is a pervasive behavior in the adult world (DePaulo,
Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996). Furthermore, children,
as young as 42 months, have been found to lie in laboratory
settings for a variety of reasons (Evans, Xu, & Lee, 2011; Polak &
Harris, 1999; Popliger, Talwar, & Crossman, 2011; Talwar & Lee,
2002). There is strong evidence that the ability to lie is positively
related to the development of cognitive skills such as theory of
mind and executive functioning (Evans et al., 2011; Polak &
Harris, 1999; Talwar, Gordon, & Lee, 2007; Talwar & Lee, 2008).
However, little is known regarding whether children younger
than 42 months will lie. Young children may not lie in the same
sense as adults or older children, which is deliberately stating a
belief that one does not believe with an intent to instill a false
belief in the listener (Chisholm & Feehan, 1977). Talwar and Lee
(2008) proposed a developmental model of lying. The first level of
primary lies emerges around 2–3 years of age when children begin
to be able to deliberately make factually untrue statements. How-
ever, they do not necessarily take into consideration the mental
states of the listener. Secondary lies emerge around the age of 4
years and require children to understand that the listener, unlike
themselves, does not know the true state of affairs and thus is
susceptible to false beliefs. Finally, around 7–8 years of age,
children begin to reach tertiary lies where they are able to conceal
their lies by maintaining consistency between their initial lie and
follow-up statements. The present investigation focuses on the
emergence of young children’s primary lies.
Given that there is evidence that executive functions emerge in
toddlerhood (Hughes & Ensor, 2005; Rennie, Bull, & Diamond,
2004), some of the cognitive ingredients necessary for lying are in
place to support 2-year-olds’ ability to lie. Parental reports suggest
that children younger than 3 years will lie. The first report was
made by Darwin (1877), who, after observing his son attempting to
deceive him, concluded that even children as young as 30 months
will attempt to lie. More recently, Newton, Reddy, and Bull (2000)
examined the lie-telling behaviors of the second author’s son, who
was 30 months old. Using a natural observation method, these
authors reported 37 incidents of deception. In addition to parental
reports, Wilson, Smith, and Ross (2003) observed lie telling at
home and found that 65% of 2-year-olds and 94% of 4-year-olds
lied at least once.
Although naturalistic observation studies can reveal how chil-
dren behave in a comfortable context, experimental studies are
needed to control for alternative explanations. Whereas no labo-
ratory study has examined 2-year-olds’ lying, several studies have
examined their nonverbal deception. Chandler, Fritz, and Hala
(1989) as well as Sodian, Taylor, Harris, and Perner (1991) found
that 2- and 3-year-olds produced deceptive ploys to conceal the
location of a hidden toy with the support of an experimenter.
However, it is unknown whether very young children can sponta-
neously tell lies in the laboratory.
Angela D. Evans, Department of Psychology, Brock University, St.
Catherine, Ontario, Canada; Kang Lee, Institute of Child Studies, Univer-
sity of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and Department of Psychology,
University of California, San Diego.
This research was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant R01
HD048962 and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Angela
D. Evans, Department of Psychology, Brock University, 500 Glenridge
Avenue, St. Catherine, ON L2S 3A1, Canada, or Kang Lee, Institute of
Child Studies, University of Toronto, 45 Walmer Road, Toronto, ON M5R
2X2, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
2013, Vol. 49, No. 3, 000
© 2013 American Psychological Association
In addition to developmental age differences, cognitive skills
such as executive functioning have been found to be related to
deceptive abilities (Carlson, Moses, & Hix, 1998; Evans et al.,
2011; Talwar & Lee, 2008). Inhibitory control, or an individual’s
ability to suppress a response while completing a separate goal, is
believed to be required to tell a lie because that individual must
inhibit the truth while reporting false information. Working mem-
ory, a system for temporarily holding and processing information
(Baddeley, 1986), is also believed to be required to lie because one
must keep in memory both the lie and the truth.
Carlson et al. (1998) found support for the relation between
inhibitory control and deception by demonstrating that 3-year-olds
who had difficulty with inhibitory control also had difficulty
deceiving someone by pointing to the wrong location of a hidden
object. Building on Carlson et al.’s findings, Talwar and Lee
(2008) found that 3- to 8-year-olds’ ability to deny their transgres-
sion was related to their inhibitory control skills. Additionally,
Evans et al. (2011) found that 4-year-olds’ inhibitory control skills
were significantly related to their ability to maintain consistency
between physical evidence of a transgression and their deceptive
statements. These studies strongly support the relation between
inhibitory control skills and lie-telling behaviors.
Support for a relation between working memory and lying has
been more inconsistent. Talwar and Lee (2008) found no signifi-
cant relation. However, both Talwar and Lee (2008) and Evans et
al. (2011) found that the Stroop task, which has been suggested to
involve both inhibitory control skills and working memory (Carl-
son & Moses, 2001), was significantly related to children’s lie
telling. These results suggest that children’s performance on tasks
that measure working memory in conjunction with inhibitory
control (rather than inhibitory control or working memory alone)
may be related to children’s lie-telling behavior.
The present investigation was the first to directly examine the
development of children’s early spontaneous verbal deceptive be-
haviors between the ages of 2 and 3 years and the related cognitive
skills. All children participated in a temptation-resistance para-
digm where children were asked not to peek at a toy while the
experimenter was absent. Upon returning, the experimenter asked
children whether they had peeked (lie-telling measure). To assess
whether children could conceal their lie during follow-up ques-
tioning (semantic leakage control; Talwar, Lee, Bala, & Lindsay,
2002), children were asked what the toy was. Children completed
a series of executive functioning tasks and their parents completed
a language measure.
While Carlson et al. (1998) found that 3-year-olds with poor
inhibitory control scores had difficulty deceiving someone by
pointing to an alternate location, in the present investigation we
removed the component of providing a false statement and simply
required children to make a denial of an action they had commit-
ted. This reduced cognitive requirement provided an opportunity to
examine children’s earliest lies. Based on existing studies (Newton
et al., 2000; Wilson, Smith, & Ross, 2003), we hypothesized that
2-year-olds would lie to conceal their transgression. We also
hypothesized that as age increased, children would be significantly
more likely to lie (Wilson et al., 2003). Finally, we explored
whether semantic leakage control would improve with age and
executive functioning skills (Evans et al., 2011; Talwar & Lee,
Forty-one 2-year-olds (M ? 29.56 months, SD ? 3.10; range:
25–35 months, 25 boys) and twenty-four 3-year-olds (M ? 43.31
months, SD ? 3.39; range: 37–47 months, 12 boys) participated in
the study, resulting in a total sample of 65. Children were recruited
from households of diverse socioeconomic status in a major Ca-
nadian city through a participant database. Informed consent was
obtained from parents and verbal assent from children. The study
was approved by the university research ethics board.
Children were seen individually in a quiet room and completed
a series of executive functioning tasks and a measure of verbal
deception. The order of tasks was randomized between participants
with the exception of the Gift Delay, which always was the last
task. Parents completed a questionnaire of their child’s verbal
Verbal ability measure (MacArthur–Bates Short Form Vo-
cabulary Checklist–Level II; Fenson et al., 2000).
were presented with a one-page list of words (e.g., dog, bye) and
were asked to indicate the words they had heard their child say.
Children received 1 point for each word. Total scores could range
from 0 to 100.
Executive functioning measures.
battery was based on Carlson’s (2005) toddler tasks.
Reverse Categorization (Carlson, Mandell, & Williams, 2004).
First, big blocks were sorted into a big bucket and little blocks into
a little bucket. Next, 12 Reverse Categorization trials were com-
pleted. The experimenter asked children to sort the big blocks in
the little bucket and the little blocks in the big bucket. One point
was awarded for each Reverse Categorization trial the child per-
formed correctly. Scores could range from 0 to 12.
Shape Stroop (Kochanska, Murray, & Harlan, 2000).
were presented with three cards depicting a large and small image
of a fruit. The experimenter labeled the size of each fruit and asked
children to name the fruit. Then, children were given three trials in
which the card depicted two large fruits with smaller fruits em-
bedded in the center (e.g., a large banana with a small apple inside
next to a large orange with a small banana inside). Children were
asked to point to the small fruit (e.g., the little banana). One point
was given for each correct trial. Scores could range from 0 to 3.
Gift Delay (Kochanska et al., 2000).
sented children with a gift bag and asked children not to peek at the
gift while she went to get a bow. Hidden cameras captured chil-
dren’s behavior in the experimenter’s absence. The experimenter
returned to the room after 3 min (or once the child peeked).
Children were given 1 point if they did not peek at the gift. Scores
could range from 0 to 1.
Table 1 shows the means and standard deviations of the cogni-
tive measures by age. A total executive functioning score was
created. Because scoring standards for each executive functioning
task were different, a z-score transformation was performed on
each executive functioning measure. The total executive function-
ing score for each participant was the summed z scores of all
executive functioning tasks (see Table 2 for intercorrelations be-
The executive functioning
The experimenter pre-
EVANS AND LEE
tween executive functioning measures and age; the lack of corre-
lations between Gift Delay and Stroop is consistent with findings
of Evans et al., 2011).
Deception task (Talwar & Lee, 2002).
to play a guessing game. A toy was placed behind them (e.g., a
duck), a noise associated with the toy was made (e.g., quacking),
and the children were asked to guess the name of the toy. After the
children successfully guessed the first two toys, the experimenter
told children that she needed to get a storybook and that the next
toy would be placed on the table with the noise playing but that
they were not to turn around while the experimenter retrieved the
storybook. The toy was placed on the table, and a musical card
played music unrelated to the toy so that children could not
accurately identify the toy. Due to the young age of the children,
the experimenter did not leave the room but instead went to a
corner (in front of the child) and rummaged through a bin with her
back to the child. Hidden cameras captured whether children
peeked. After 1 min, the experimenter closed the bin loudly and
stood up to indicate that she was done and was about to turn
around. The experimenter then turned around and immediately
covered the toy with a cloth. Children were classified as either
peekers (peeked at the toy) or nonpeekers (did not peek at the toy).
As a measure of whether children understood that they were not
supposed to peek, children’s behavior at the moment that the
experimenter stood up was coded. Of the children who peeked at
the toy, 86.5% (N ? 45) of children returned to their seated
position with their back to the toy, indicating that they understood
the rule and remained in this position while the experimenter
covered the toy. No significant age (M ? 33.77 months, SD ? 7.11
and M ? 31.32 months, SD ? 7.78, for children who returned and
Children were invited
did not return to their original seated position, respectively, p ?
.406) or cognitive differences (ps ? .117) were found between
those who returned to the seated position and those who did not.
To assess whether children would tell the truth or a lie about
their peeking behavior, the experimenter asked, “While I was
getting the book, did you turn around and peek at the toy?” If they
peeked and admitted peeking, they were classified as a confessor.
If they peeked but denied peeking, they were classified as a lie
teller. Then, to examine whether children were able to maintain
verbal consistency between their initial statement and subsequent
statements (i.e., semantic leakage control) they were asked, “What
do you think it is?” Children who blurted out the name of the toy
were classified as revealers. Children who concealed their knowl-
edge by either feigning ignorance (e.g., saying “I don’t know”) or
guessed another toy were classified as concealers.
Preliminary analyses with gender as a predictor variable on the
first step of all described regressions revealed no significant effects
of gender (ps ? .20). Thus, all further analyses were conducted
collapsing across gender.
Overall, 80% (52 of 65) of children peeked at the toy. A logistic
regression was performed with peeking behavior (0 ? did not
peek, 1 ? peeked) as the predicted variable and age in months as
the predictor. The model was significant, ?2(1, 65) ? 6.74,
Nagelkerke R2? .16, p ? .009. As age increased, children were
Percentage of Children Who Peeked and Lied and the Means (Standard Deviations) for Verbal Ability and Executive Functioning
Measures by Quartile Split on Age in Months
Age in months
Total 25–28 (n ? 19)29–33 (n ? 14) 34–42 (n ? 16)43–48 (n ? 16)
Peeked % (fraction)
Lied % (fraction)
MacArthur–Bates mean (SD)
Reverse Categorization mean (SD)
Shape Stroop mean (SD)
Gift Delay mean (SD)
MacArthur–Bates ? MacArthur–Bates Short Form Checklist–Level II.
Correlations Among Children’s Age (in Months), Language, Individual Executive Function Measures, and the Total Executive
Function Composite Score
CategorizationShape Stroop Gift Delay
Total executive function composite score
?Correlation is significant at the .05 level (2-tailed).
??Correlation is significant at the .01 level (2-tailed).
EMERGENCE OF LYING IN VERY YOUNG CHILDREN
significantly less likely to peek at the toy (B ? 0.1–1.0, Wald ?
6.09, p ? .014, odds ratio [OR] ? 1.12). The odds ratio indicates
that for each month increase in age, children were 1.12 times less
likely to peek (Table 1).
Peeking latencies were calculated from the time that the exper-
imenter placed the toy on the table until the child turned around
(M ? 10.75 s, SD ? 16.02; range 0–59). A linear regression was
performed with peeking latencies as the predicted variable and age
in months as the predictor. As age increased, children took signif-
icantly longer to peek, F(1, 51) ? 5.21, R2? .10, ? ? .32, p ?
Of the 52 peekers, 40% (N ? 21) lied about having peeked. A
logistic regression was performed with lie-telling behavior (0 ?
confessor, 1 ? lie-teller) as the predicted variable. Age in months
was entered on the first step followed by verbal ability on the
second step and total executive functioning score on the third step.
The first model was significant, ?2(1, 52) ? 8.64, Nagelkerke
R2? .29, p ? .003. As age increased, children were significantly
more likely to lie (B ? 0.13, Wald ? 7.33, p ? .007, OR ? 1.14).
The odds ratio indicates that for each month increase in age,
children were 1.14 times more likely to lie (Table 1). The second
block of the model including verbal ability was not significant,
??2(1, 52) ? 2.26, Nagelkerke R2? .28, p ? .13. However, the
third block including the total executive functioning score was
significant, ??2(1, 52) ? 6.91, Nagelkerke R2? .43, p ? .009.
Further investigation of the individual variables in the model
indicated that children with higher executive functioning skills
were significantly more likely to lie (B ? 1.75, Wald ? 5.26, p ?
.022, OR ? 5.77). The odds ratio indicates that for each point
increase in children’s total executive functioning score, they were
more than 5 times more likely to lie.
A logistic regression was also performed with only those chil-
dren who demonstrated their understanding of the rule by returning
to their seated position (N ? 45) following the same steps as the
previous logistic regression. The first model was significant, ?2(1,
45) ? 12.28, Nagelkerke R2? .34, p ? .001. As age increased,
children were significantly more likely to lie (B ? 0.18, Wald ?
9.02, p ? .003 OR ? 1.19). The second block of the model
including verbal ability was not significant, ??2(1, 45) ? 0.84,
Nagelkerke R2? .36, p ? .36. However, the third block including
the total executive functioning score was significant, ??2(1, 45) ?
3.72, Nagelkerke R2? .44, p ? .05. Again, children with higher
executive functioning skills were significantly more likely to lie
(B ? 0.39, Wald ? 3.33, p ? .06, OR ? 1.47).
To assess which executive functioning measures were contrib-
uting uniquely to children’s lie-telling, we performed a series of
three follow-up logistic regression for each of the individual ex-
ecutive functioning measures on children’s lie-telling behavior
(0 ? confessor, 1 ? lie teller). Age was entered on the first step
followed by either children’s Reverse Categorization, Gift Delay,
or Shape Stroop scores on the second step. Because children’s
verbal ability was not a significant predictor, it was excluded from
the model. Furthermore, because findings were consistent across
analyses that included and excluded children who did not remain
in their original seat, all children were included in the follow-up
logistic regression to ensure statistical power. For all logistic
regressions, the first step with age was significant, ?2(1, 52) ?
8.64, Nagelkerke R2? .29, p ? .003, (B ? 0.13, Wald ? 7.33,
p ? .006, OR ? 1.14). Next we examined the second block for all
three logistic regressions. For the first logistic regression with
children’s Reverse Categorization scores entered on the second
step, the second block with was not significant, ?2(1, 52) ? 2.72,
Nagelkerke R2? .27, p ? .10. For the second logistic regression
with children’s Gift Delay scores entered on the second step, the
second block was also not found to be significant, ?2(1, 52) ?
2.06, Nagelkerke R2? .26, p ? .15. Finally, for the third logistic
regression with children’s Shape Stroop scores entered on the
second step, the second block was found to be significant, ?2(1,
52) ? 4.45, Nagelkerke R2? .34, p ? .04, indicating that for each
point increase in children’s Shape Stroop scores, they were 1.88
times more likely to tell a lie (B ? 0.63, Wald ? 4.02, p ? .04,
OR ? 1.88).
Semantic Leakage Control
Of the 21 children who lied, 76% (N ? 16; Mage ? 39.46
months SD ? 8.62; range ? 25– 48 months) of children were
revealers, 14% (N ? 3; one child was 32 months and two children
were 27 months) were concealers, and 10% (N ? 2; both were 29
months) refused to answer the question about what the toy was.
Thus, although most young children lied, their semantic leakage
control was poor, and their responses to the follow-up question
revealed that they peeked and lied. Due to the small number of
concealers, we were unable to examine the linkage between se-
mantic leakage control and the other measures.
The present study investigated the emergence of lie-telling
behaviors in children between 2 and 3 years old. We examined the
development of the lie-telling behaviors, and the relation between
lie-telling and children’s executive functions.
With regards to children’s lie-telling behavior, consistent with
studies with older children (Polak & Harris, 1999; Talwar & Lee,
2002, 2008), the majority of 3-year-olds who peeked lied. In
contrast, only a quarter of the 2-year-olds lied to conceal their
transgression. Consistent with our hypothesis, we established ex-
perimentally that 2-year-olds will spontaneously tell lies. We also
found that between 2 and 3 years of age, the tendency to lie
dramatically increases, which mirrors the developmental trend of
children between 3 and 12 years (Talwar et al., 2007; Talwar &
Lee, 2002, 2008). However, it is possible that the present study
underestimated 2-year-olds’ lie-telling. Previous studies have
found that 2-year-olds are likely to exhibit a yes bias (Fritzley &
Lee, 2003). If children exhibited a yes bias in response to the
question “Did you turn around and peek at the toy?” this would
decrease the rate of lie-telling. Due to the low frequency of
nonpeekers in the present study, we were unable to test the
possibility of a yes bias. Future studies are needed in which both
yes and no responses could lead to a lie to test this possibility.
Also, it remains to be ascertained what type of lies are being told
by young children. They could have told a primary lie, which is
simply desire based (Ahern, Lyon, & Quas, 2011; Reddy, 2007), or
a secondary lie, in which they take the listener’s mental state into
consideration. To ascertain what type of lie is being told, investi-
EVANS AND LEE
gators in future studies need to examine whether young children’s
lie telling is related to their performance on desire-based or belief-
based theory-of-mind tasks.
The present investigation also examined the relation between lie
telling and executive functions. After controlling for age, we found
that consistent with our predictions, children who performed better
on executive functioning tasks were significantly more likely to
lie. It has been suggested that the unique combination of inhibitory
control skills and working memory required by the Stroop task
make this an important skill for telling a lie (Evans et al., 2011;
Talwar & Lee, 2008). Unlike delay inhibitory control tasks where
children merely have to inhibit their response (e.g., Gift Delay), in
conflict inhibitory control tasks (e.g., Stroop) children must inhibit
an inappropriate response while producing a conflicting novel
response (Carlson & Moses, 2001). This additional requirement of
producing the alternative response increases the demands of work-
ing memory. These demands are similar to telling a lie as one must
inhibit the truth while producing a conflicting alternative response.
Thus, it may be this unique combination of inhibitory control and
working memory that is important for lie telling. The present
investigation suggests that rather than younger children being
more morally inclined to tell the truth, they may simply be less
able to tell lies due to their fragile executive functioning skills.
Future studies could use methods similar to those used by Polak
and Harris (1999) and Lyon, Malloy, Quas, and Talwar (2008)
with control conditions in which 2-year-olds are allowed to play
with the toy in the experimenter’s absence. Such a design would
provide important insights into whether very young children are
making factually untrue statements indiscriminately or flexibly
according to the demands of the situation. Furthermore, increasing
the salience of the transgression by asking children about an action
(e.g., “Did you get out of your chair?”), as well as their perception,
and highlighting the rules may assist in supporting children’s
memory of the transgression. Finally, including a posttest memory
check question about the transgression would confirm that children
did indeed remember peeking at the toy.
In summary, we demonstrated for the first time experimentally
that children begin to tell lies as young as 2 years of age, but most
2-year-olds are still highly honest. Within a 1-year span, children
become more inclined to lie about their transgression. In line with
studies involving older children, we found that executive function-
ing skills played an important role in lie telling. Furthermore, the
results of the present investigation suggests that rather than
younger children simply being more morally inclined to tell the
truth, they may simply be less able to tell lies due to their executive
functioning skills. Thus, our findings taken together with the
previous findings suggest that lying is an early developmental
milestone, and its emergence and development reflect increased
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Received September 1, 2011
Revision received October 19, 2012
Accepted November 1, 2012 ?
EVANS AND LEE