Why toddlers may know when you’re lying to them


    Research has shown that little ones as young as two years old could know when we’re not telling the truth

    It turns out you might want to think twice before telling little white lies to your child – chances are, they could know that you’re not being honest.

    In a recent study, an international team of researchers analysed the behaviour of more than 140 children aged two-and-a-half using a modified version of the ‘false belief task’.

    The task tests if children understand when someone thinks differently from them, and the same ability allows them to recognise when people lie, cheat and pretend. Researchers found that many of the toddlers were, in fact,  quite aware, and published their findings in the National Academy of Sciences.

    The traditional ‘false belief task’ requires a child to listen to a story in which a character named Sally hides a marble in one of two containers. Sally then leaves, and the marble is shifted to the other container without her knowledge.

    Then, the children are asked where Sally will look for the marble. While younger children tend to point to the new location (suggesting that they do not understand that Sally holds a false belief about it), older children – generally aged four and over – point to the original location.

    For this study, researchers simplified the task, using a modified story of Emma and her apple, which followed the same format. Before asking where Emma will look for her apple, the team asked two additional questions, in which the toddlers were shown two object pictures and asked about the location of the object in question. Researchers say this helped to reduce the information-processing demand, making it easier for them to answer the ultimate question.

    Many of the children were able to answer correctly – indicating that they are aware that others may hold different beliefs from them – far younger than previous studies have suggested.

    “Having the ability to represent false beliefs means recognising that others can have different thoughts from us,” says assistant professor Setoh Pei Pei of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “This ability enables children to recognise when others are lying, cheating or pretending. If parents believe that children do not understand complicated matters, they may tell simpler versions of the truth and ‘dumb down’ what they view as complicated content for kids.

    “Our findings suggest that children may be able to spot when parents are doing this from as early as two-and-a-half years old.”

    Don’t say we didn’t warn you!