Liar, liar, pants on fire. The infamous chant continues to ring across playgrounds when a kid has been caught fibbing. But what makes some children masters of deceit and others bad at covering up their tracks? A new study suggests it’s down to good memory skills.
A study of 114 children, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, found a link between verbal memory and their ability to cover up lies. Researchers gave six- and seven-year-old children a three-question quiz and instructed them not to cheat by looking at the answer on the back of the card, which was only given for the third question.
They were first asked to answer two easy questions: “What noise does a dog make?" and "What color are bananas?" The last question was based on a fictitious cartoon character: “What is the name of the boy in the cartoon Spaceboy?”
A hidden camera allowed researchers to see who peeked at the answer to the last question. A researcher then came back in the room and asked the child if he or she cheated by looking at the answer. The children were then asked to answer the final question and if they answered correctly, they were asked two follow-up questions: “Can you guess what color the answer is written in?” and “Can you guess what picture is on the back?”
If the children were able to cover their tracks by feigning ignorance or deliberately giving the wrong answer, researchers categorized them as good liars. Researchers then measured the childrens' verbal working memory – the number of words they could remember – and visuo-spatial working memory, which is the number of images they can remember.
Children who were good liars did better in tests of verbal memory. Researchers suggest the link between verbal memory and being a good liar is down to the fact that covering up a lie requires the fibber to keep track of a lot of information.
"While parents are usually not too proud when their kids lie, they can at least be pleased to discover that when their children are lying well, it means their children are becoming better at thinking and have good memory skills,” Dr. Elena Hoicka, from the University of Sheffield's Department of Psychology, said in a statement.
"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 more porkies than others. We'll now be looking to move the research forward to discover more about how children first learn to lie," Hoicka added.