Follow the liar: the effects of adult lies on children’s honesty
and Leslie J. Carver
1. Department of Psychology, University of California, USA
2. Program in Human Development, University of California, USA
Recent research shows that most adults admit they lie to children. We also know that children learn through modeling and
imitation. To date there are no published studies that examine whether lying to children has an effect on children’s honesty. We
aimed to bridge the gap in this literature by examining the effects of adults’lies on elementary and preschool-aged children’s
behavior using a modified temptation resistance paradigm, in which children are tempted to peek at a toy they have been told not
to look at, and later given a chance to either admit peeking, or try to conceal their transgression by lying. Prior to being tested,
half of the children were told a lie and half were not. We then measured both cheating (peeking) and lie-telling behaviors. We
hypothesized that lying to a child would increase the likelihood that they would both peek at the toy and lie about having done so.
Results showed that school-age children were more likely to peek if they had been lied to, and were also more likely to lie about
peeking. In contrast with the school-age children, there was no difference in peeking or lying for preschoolers who were and were
not lied to. These results have important implications for parenting and educational settings.
•Preschool and school-aged children were randomly
assigned to a lie or no lie condition, in which adults
did or did not lie to them before temptation
•School-age children who were lied to were more likely
to both lie and peek in the temptation resistance
paradigm than children who were not lied to.
•Preschoolers’behavior was unaffected by whether an
adult lied to them or not.
Much research has been devoted to the topic of lying.
Researchers have long been fascinated with determining
who lies, who they lie to, and why or why not one might
choose to lie (Depaulo, Jordan, Irvine & Laser, 1982;
Depaulo, Kirkendol, Kashy & Wyler, 1996; Lewis,
Stanger & Sullivan, 1989; Polak & Harris, 1999; Talwar
& Lee, 2002a, 2008; Talwar, Lee, Bala & Lindsay, 2002;
2004). Lying refers to deliberately making a false verbal
statement with the intent of instilling false beliefs into
the mind of the statement’s recipient (Lee, 2000, 2013).
The current body of knowledge has shown that both
children and adults engage in lie-telling behaviors
(Depaulo et al., 1996; Talwar & Lee, 2002a). Most research
in this field has focused on the lies that children tell
adults, leaving the lies that adults tell children largely
ignored (Polak & Harris, 1999; Talwar & Lee 2002a;
Talwar et al., 2002, 2004; Wilson, Smith & Ross, 2003).
The small amount of research that has been devoted to
this topic has established that most parents do lie to their
children (Heyman, Hsu, Fu & Lee, 2013; Heyman, Luu
& Lee, 2009), yet there has been no attempt to examine
the effects that these lies may have on the honesty of the
children being lied to.
Lie-telling behaviors begin to appear in children
around 3 years of age, although there is evidence that
children as young as 2 are capable of lying (Chandler,
Fritz & Hala, 1989; Evans & Lee, 2013; Polak & Harris,
1999; Talwar & Lee, 2002a). Although young children lie
for a variety of reasons, some of the most common lies
Address for correspondence: Leslie J. Carver, Psychology Department, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA
92093-0109, USA; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Developmental Science (2014), pp 1–7 DOI: 10.1111/desc.12171
are aimed at concealing transgressions and avoiding
punishment (Depaulo et al., 1982; Wilson et al., 2003).
In order to elicit these types of lies in a laboratory setting
many experimenters have used a temptation resistance
paradigm (Lewis et al., 1989; Polak & Harris, 1999;
Talwar & Lee, 2008). In the paradigm children are told
by an experimenter not to peek at a toy while left alone
in a room. Because of the tempting nature of this
situation, most children peek at the toy. When the
experimenter re-enters the room and asks the child
whether they peeked, children can then either confess or
can try to conceal the transgression and lie. This
paradigm has been used as the basis for learning much
about the lies that children tell, making it possible for
researchers to correlate lie-telling behaviors with a
variety of measures. Age, theory of mind, and executive
functioning ability have all been positively correlated
with the lie-telling behaviors of children (Carlson, Moses
& Hix, 1998; Talwar & Lee, 2008). More importantly,
research has shown that a child’s moral evaluation of lies
is related to their lie-telling behavior, with children who
value truthfulness being less likely to lie (Talwar & Lee,
Because lie-telling is a social behavior, it is important
to note that observation, modeling and imitation are all
thought to play a large role in a child’s social learning
(Bandura, 1977; Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1961; Meltzoff
& Gopnik, 1993; Meltzoff, 2002). According to Bandu-
ra’s Social Learning Theory, social behaviors are
acquired through a process of direct experience and the
observation of others via modeling (Bandura, 1963,
1977). A child is more likely to adopt, or imitate, a
modeled behavior if the model is similar to the observer
with an admired status, and also if the modeled behavior
results in a valued outcome (Bandura, 1977), suggesting
that a parent’s dishonest actions may be highly suscep-
tible to imitation. It is also believed that modeling and
imitation are central to the development of moral values
(Meltzoff & Gopnik, 1993; Meltzoff, 2002). This idea is
supported by evidence showing that children’s moral
judgments can be altered by modeling (Bandura &
Mcdonald 1963). Children may be able to do more than
just imitate a dishonest adult; perhaps they are able to
extract a value system from the model, learning to place
less importance on honesty in general.
Given that parents lie to their children, that children’s
lie-telling behaviors are related to their moral under-
standing, and that they develop social behaviors and
moral values through modeling, it is surprising that there
are no published studies evaluating the effects of these
lies on children’s honesty. We aimed to bridge the gap in
this literature by examining the effects of an adult’s lie
on children’s behavior in a temptation resistance
paradigm. We hypothesized that lying to a child would
increase the likelihood that the child would engage in
dishonest behaviors. We expected that children who were
lied to prior to being tested in a temptation resistance
paradigm (Talwar & Lee, 2008) would be more likely to
lie than children who were not lied to. Because cheating
is generally dishonest, and we expected that our manip-
ulation would decrease children’s motivation for honest
behavior, or their view of honesty as important in this
context, we hypothesized that the children who were lied
to would also be more likely to cheat (peek) in the
paradigm. Older children have more sophisticated theory
of mind abilities. For example, children do not pass tests
designed to determine whether they understand that
someone can hide their emotions until about 5 years of
age (Wellman & Liu, 2004). Because older children are
also better able to identify and categorize lies (e.g. as
good, bad, intentional, unintentional, etc.; Bussey, 1999;
Talwar et al., 2002; Wellman, Cross & Watson, 2001), we
expected them to be more affected by the lying manip-
ulation than younger children who, based on previous
research (Talwar et al., 2002), might have difficulty
There were 186 children between the ages of 3 and 7
included in this study. Ninety-three children were of pre-
school age, which we defined as under age 5 (the age at
which formal schooling generally begins in the US; 41
boys; Mage =3.95 years, SD =.64, range =3.05–4.99)
and 93 were of school-age, between ages 5 and 7 (50
boys; Mage =6.43 years, SD =.93, range =5.00–7.98).
We tested a range of ages in order to assess develop-
mental changes in the influence of adult lies on children.
Children in each age group were randomly assigned to
either the ‘lie’or ‘no lie’condition. Table 1 shows the
number and ages of children in each group. Children
were primarily White (N=124). Other children were
Hispanic (N=18), Asian (N=20), African American
(N=6), Native American (N=3), multiple races
reported (N=6). Nine parents declined to report their
child’s ethnicity. Children were primarily from middle
SES families. An additional 12 children were tested, and
their data excluded for the following reasons: Data from
five children (one school-age child and four preschool-
ers) were excluded from analysis because they admitted
to peeking even though they had not peeked. Although
these children could be classified as having lied, the
number in this cell is too small to include in analysis. The
©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
2 Chelsea Hays and Leslie J. Carver
four preschoolers who falsely confessed to peeking were
young 3-year-olds (M=3.2 years), suggesting that this
may be due to a confirmation bias which has been shown
to be robust in 2-year-olds and present in some 3-year-
olds (Fritzley & Lee, 2003). Data from three preschoolers
were excluded because of tape recording errors which
prohibited coding of their behavior (e.g. missing tape or
tape with no sound). Data from two children (one
school-age child and one preschooler) were excluded
because they refused to promise to tell the truth. One
school-age child was excluded due to experimenter error
and another was excluded due to the mother telling the
child that she would be watching from the other room
(parents were instructed not to tell their children that
they would be able to see them).
Children were tested using a modified temptation
resistance paradigm. Children were tested with three
recognizable, commercially available toys (Elmo, Cookie
Monster, Winnie the Pooh) that are associated with a
familiar sound (‘Tickle me’for Elmo, ‘I love cookies’for
Cookie Monster, ‘There is a rumbly in my tummy’for
Winnie the Pooh). These sounds were prerecorded, and
presented during the temptation resistance paradigm.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of two
conditions. In the ‘lie’condition, children were told a lie:
‘There is a huge bowl of candy in the next room, want to
go get some?’Once in the room, the experimenter
confessed to the child saying, ‘There’s not really any
candy in here; I just said that because I wanted you to
come play a game with me.’Children randomly assigned
to the ‘no lie’condition were asked, ‘There is a really fun
game in the next room, want to go play?’, with no
mention of candy. Both groups of children were tested
using a modified temptation resistance paradigm to
measure lie-telling and cheating (peeking) behaviors.
Children were seated with their back towards the
experimenter while two commercially recognizable
character toys were brought out in succession. Each of
these toys was accompanied by an associated audio clue.
After hearing the clue, children were asked, ‘Who do you
think it is?’The third toy (target toy) was accompanied
by an unassociated audio cue (Beethoven’s Fur Elise).
Toys were counterbalanced so that no toy served as the
target toy more often than any other toy. As the target
toy was brought out the experiment was interrupted
under the guise of a phone call for the experimenter. The
child was instructed not to peek at the toy and was left
alone in the room for 90 seconds. When the experimenter
returned, the toy was covered and the child was told they
could turn around. The experimenter asked the child if
he promised to tell the truth. This procedure was adapted
from Talwar et al. (2002), which showed that asking
children to promise to tell the truth before giving them a
chance to admit or deny their transgression has been
shown to significantly decrease lie-telling (Lyon &
Dorado, 2008; Talwar et al., 2002, 2004). Without this
adaptation the majority of children lie in the paradigm
(Lewis et al., 1989; Polak & Harris, 1999; Talwar & Lee,
2002b; Talwar et al., 2002), causing low variability and
making it difficult to reveal the potential effects of our
lying manipulation. After promising to tell the truth the
child was asked: ‘When I was gone did you turn around
and peek to look at the toy?’
Coders unfamiliar with the hypotheses being tested or
group assignment coded the children’s behavior. Chil-
dren were coded as having peeked if they turned their
head more than 90 degrees towards the toy with their
eyes open. Lying and truth-telling scores were coded only
for children who peeked. Children were coded as having
lied if they claimed they had not peeked when coders
indicated that they had. Children were coded as having
told the truth if they peeked and subsequently admitted
that they had. Two independent coders both coded 51
(27%) of participants for reliability. Reliability for
Table 1 Number and ages of girls and boys tested in each group. Age is given in months, and the age range is provided in
Lied to Not Lied to
TotalGirls Boys Girls Boys
50.7 months (39.1–59.9)
45.4 months (37.8–59.1)
47.4 months (36.6–58.6
47.7 months (36.9–58.9)
School age N=21
81.5 months (60.1–95.7)
76.5 months (60.9 –92.1)
76.5 months (60.9–92.1)
Total N=46 N=48 N=49 N=43 N=186
©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Follow the liar 3
peeking behavior was perfect (Cohen’sk=1.0). Reli-
ability for lying was near perfect (k=.96). Disagreement
was resolved by consensus.
We used logistic regression to predict children’s lie-
telling behavior. Predictor variables were group assign-
ment (whether the child was lied to or not), binned age
(preschool or school age), and the interaction between
age and group. Dependent measures were whether the
child peeked in the temptation resistance paradigm, and
whether they lied.
Table 2a shows the results of the logistic regression for
peeking behavior. Group assignment did not signifi-
cantly predict the likelihood of children peeking (p=
.481), but age did (p=.017). Younger children were more
likely to peek than older children. The interaction
between age and group assignment was a marginally
significant predictor of peeking behavior (p=.083).
Because we predicted differences between age groups in
the effect of the lying manipulation, we also conducted
individual chi square analyses for each age group. Data
from these analyses are summarized in Table 3. For
preschool-age children, there was no evidence that the
lying manipulation affected their peeking behavior
(p =.733). School-age children were more likely to peek
if they had been lied to, v
(1, N=93) =5.93, p=.015,
φ=.253, than if they were not lied to (see Figure 1a).
Group assignment was a significant predictor of lying
behavior (p=.008, see Table 2b). Children who were lied
to were more likely to lie than children who were not.
Age also significantly predicted lying (p=.002). Older
children lied more often than younger children. Finally,
the interaction of age and group assignment was a
significant predictor of lying behavior (p=.018). As was
the case with peeking, we conducted chi square analyses
for each age group separately. These analyses (see
Table 3) showed that preschoolers were just as likely to
lie if they were previously lied to as if they were not (p =
.996). School-age children who had been lied to were
more likely to lie about peeking, v
(1, N=63) =4.552,
p=.033, φ=.269 (see Figure 1b).
Adults often lie to children as a way to control their
behavior, to get them to cooperate, to control their
emotions, or even because it seems easier than providing
an accurate, but difficult explanation for a question the
child may ask (Heyman et al., 2009). Although we know
that this phenomenon exists, there is little research about
Table 2 Results of logistic regression analyses
Predictor bPseudo R
df p Odds Ratio
(a) peeking behavior predicted by age, group assignment, and age by group interaction
Age .383 .497 1 .481 1.467
Group 1.112 5.715 1 .017 .329
Age x Group interaction 1.316 .112 3.007 1 .083 3.729
Predictor bPseudo R
df p Odds Ratio
(b) Lying behavior predicted by age, group assignment, and age by group interaction
Age 1.140 6.961 1 .008 .320
Group 1.383 9.864 1 .002 .251
Age x Group interaction 1.434 .088 5.551 1 .018 4.197
Table 3 Results of chi square analyses for each age group
Log likelihood PR
Log likelihood p
Preschoolers .001 .12 .06 .733 0.00 0.00 0.00 .996
School age .05 5.93 3.001 .015 .067 5.52 2.24 .033
©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
4 Chelsea Hays and Leslie J. Carver
the implications of adult lies for children’s behavior. We
manipulated whether an adult lied to a child or not, and
measured their peeking and lie-telling behaviors in a
temptation resistance paradigm. The results of the
present experiment support our hypothesis that children
who were lied to would be more likely to both cheat
(peek) and lie in a temptation resistance paradigm,
although this effect was only found in the older children.
These results suggest that when an adult lies to a school-
age child, it increases the likelihood that they will, given
the opportunity, cheat on a relatively innocuous task,
and lie about having done so.
Although this study has answered what happens when
an adult lies to a child, it has not answered why it
happens. There are several possible reasons why our
manipulation may have caused the children to engage in
more dishonest behavior. First, it is possible that the
children were imitating the lie-telling behavior that they
observed. However, given that the children not only lied
more if they had been lied to but also peeked more, it is
likely that the children were doing more than simply
imitating the modeled behavior. Perhaps these children
made assumptions about the importance of honesty to
the model. This would explain why the children who were
lied to were more dishonest in general, and would be
consistent with data suggesting that children’s social
imitation can influence their moral judgments (Bandura
& McDonald, 1963). Another possibility is that rather
than imitating, the children were extracting information
about the adult who lied to them, and then using that
information to decide how to respond. Perhaps the
children did not feel the need to uphold their commit-
ment to tell the truth to someone whom they perceived as
a liar. This is particularly relevant because the children
were asked to promise to tell the truth, highlighting a
commitment between the child and the adult. This would
be in line with research that shows that a trustee’s
characteristics, such as honesty, influence whether a child
will trust them (Koenig & Harris, 2005, Vanderbilt, Liu
& Heyman, 2011).
It is important to note that we did not find the same
effect of lying or cheating with the preschool-age children.
Perhaps younger children were unable to recognize that
they had been lied to, due to less sophisticated theory of
mind abilities (Wellman et al., 2001) and subsequent
difficulty understanding others’thoughts and false beliefs.
Although 3-year-olds can sometimes pass standard false-
belief tests, the ability to understand that people can hide
their knowledge and emotions is more sophisticated, and
can emerge as late as 5 years of age (Wellman & Liu, 2004).
Given that younger children also have more difficulty
identifying lies and understanding the motivations behind
them (Bussey, 1999; Lee & Cameron, 2002; Lee, Cameron,
Doucette & Talwar, 2002; Talwar et al., 2002), it is possible
that they were inclined to think that the experimenter just
made a mistake, rather than intentionally telling them a lie.
Furthermore, it is possible that since the experimenter
justifies his lie (‘I just wanted you to come play a game with
me!’), the child did not classify this as a ‘bad’lie. Another
explanation is that preschoolers were unable to generalize
the lie-telling model to the test situation, as the experi-
menter lied about candy and the child was questioned in a
guessing game setting.
This study has important implications for our under-
standing about how children learn about honesty via
imitation. The results suggest that, at least for children
who are elementary school age, the behavior of adults
who are around them may influence their own honesty.
Children may either learn to lie by copying adults around
them, or they may learn that it is sometimes acceptable
to lie from watching adults.
Percentage of children peeking
Lied to Not Lied to Lied to Not lied to
School Age Preschool
Lied to Not Lied to Lied to Not lied to
School Age Preschool
Percent of peekers who lied
Figure 1 (a) Peeking behavior for school-age children (left)
and preschool children (right) who were lied to and not lied to.
(b) Lying behavior for school-age peekers (left) and preschool
peekers (right) who were lied to and not lied to. ***p <.005;
**p <.01; *p <.05.
©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Follow the liar 5
In the current study, children were lied to in one
context, and about one topic (the presence of candy in
the next room), and were given the opportunity to lie in a
different context (the character guessing game). The
results of this study suggest that even when an adult lies
about a topic that is different from the one they ask a
child about, they may still be providing an important
‘dishonesty model’for them. However, future research
might benefit by asking whether context matters, and
whether being told a lie about the same or a similar topic
might provide an even stronger lying cue to children.
Results of studies that manipulate whether the context of
adult lies matches situations in which children are asked
questions might have important implications for inter-
views of children in forensic situations. For example, if a
child is being interviewed regarding a possible misbe-
havior, and they ‘catch’the adult in a lie, the present
results suggest that they might be more likely to lie in
response to the questions that they are being asked than
children who have not been lied to. Although we do not
know how our results would extend to older children, who
might be more likely to find themselves in a forensic situation,
it seems likely that they would be at least as affected by adult
lies as elementary aged children, if not more so.
A limitation of this studywas that it was conducted with a
single adult model, not with a parent or an adult with whom
the child was acquainted. Research suggests that we are
more likely to lie to strangers than to those we are close to
(Depaulo & Kashy, 1998). If a parent had produced the
adult lie, children might have been less likely to lie in return.
However, given the literature on how frequently parents lie
to their children, it would be interesting to empirically test
this idea. Despite this limitation, we feel that our results are
still relevant to lies in the context of the parent–child or
caregiver relationship as a first step in understanding the
effects of adult lies on children’s lying behavior. Although
children have an established relationship with their care-
giver that is likely characterized by trust, it may be that
violations of that trust lead children to even more dishonest
behavior. On the other hand, the existing parent–child
relationship may make children immune to effects of lie-
telling by their parents. Future research could replicate this
study using a parent as the experimenter to confirm
whether this generalization is valid. Another limitation of
our experiment is that it only tested a situation where the
adult admitted to the child that they had told them a lie.
Perhapsdiscoveringthe lie ontheirown, or justsuspecting a
lie,rather thanreceivingan admission of guilt, mayproduce
different effects. It is also possible that learning of a lie in
real time may have different effects from learning of a lie in
the past. Both of these questions should be assessed in
future research. We also did not include a manipulation
check to see if the children recognized that they had been
lied to and if they thought the lie was a ‘bad’lie. This could
have helped us understand why the preschoolers were
impervious to our manipulation. In future research, we
plan to test children’s theory of mind as well as their ability
to classify lies, in order to determine whether eitherof these
may play a role in children’s susceptibility to others’lies.
Another important question that remains unanswered is
whether children’s honesty is generally affected, or if it is
specific to the person who lied to them (i.e. do children lie
more in general, or do they only lie more to the person who
originally lied to them). One way to test thiswould be to use
separate experimenters for the lie-telling manipulation and
the guessing game.
These results, coupled with previous research showing
thatmost parents lieto their children,suggests that children
may very well be ‘following the liar’. The actions of parents
suggest that they do not believe that the lies they tell their
children will impact the child’s own honesty. The current
study casts doubt on that belief. This study suggests, rather,
that children may use the actions of adults, as a model, to
determine whether they will engage in honest or dishonest
behaviors.It also suggests that children canuse the modelas
a way to extract information about the value of honest and
dishonest behaviors. The lack of evidence for this effect in
the younger group of children may suggest that lying to a
child beforethe age of 5 is largelyinconseq uential, although
future research is needed to confirm this. Overall these
findings answer a fundamental question about the impact
of adults’dishonesty on children. Now that we have clear
evidence to suggest the negative effects of lying to children,
perhaps adults need to re-evaluate the way that they
interact and talk with children. These results have very
important implications for parenting as well as education
and legal settings.Parents and teachers sometime s use lying
as away of controlling children’s behavior or emotions, and
the present results suggest that this strategy may have
deleterious effects on children’s own honesty.
We would like to thank the parents and children who
participated in this study, and the members of the
Developmental Social and Cognitive Neuroscience lab
for their help with data collection and coding.
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Received: 7 January 2013
Accepted: 27 November 2013
©2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
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