Deceit as a normal developmental skill


Lying is often condemned as a “naughty” behavior in children and regarded as reflecting moral deficits in adults. “In truth”, lying is a developmental skill, which is necessary for the preservation of the sense of self, the maintenance of individual autonomy, and the capacity to relate well with other persons.

People whom we call “liars” or “pathological liars” are generally unsuccessful liars, while those who are more successful and skillful are not identified as such. To provide an analogy, the prisons are full of unsuccessful criminals; successful liars become chief executive officers of health insurance companies.

The following discussion outlines the development of deceit and how it is incorporated as a healthy part of one’s coping mechanisms and interpersonal skills.

Defensive lies
The first lies that children tell are of denial or defensive, in order to protect one from disapproval or punishment.

They begin to appear at approximately age two and consist of statements such as “I didn’t do it” or disclaimers of knowledge as to how something may have happened. These lies are fairly primitive and it does not require much skill to detect them as untruthful statements. In addition to possible incriminating evidence, the child has little control over the non-verbal expressions that give him away. Some children will also lie in a playful or humorous way to frustrate parents or to provide entertainment; for example, deliberately misnaming an animal.

Wish fulfillment lies
Young children have confusion as to wishes, fantasy, and reality. They may tell stories that represent that which they want, with perhaps the belief that what they say will become real.

For example, the daughter of divorced parents told her father that she wanted to have a television set in her bedroom just as she had at her mother’s house. When confronted gently with the idea that what she was saying was that she really wanted a television at her mother’s house (which she did not have) and also one at her father’s house, she acknowledged that indeed this was the situation. Other children may tell false stories of planned trips to Disneyland or having relatives who are famous football players or other tales that would increase their sense of self-importance or personal wishes for gratification. Such stories have a soothing function and have similarity to the daydreams of adolescents and adults.

Lies to establish autonomy

Victor Tausk (1933), a psychoanalytic pioneer, postulated that lying is an essential component of differentiating one’s self from the mother. Young children have the universal belief that the parents, particularly the mother, can read their minds.

It is only through successful lies that children can establish that they have minds of their own which are private and separate from those of the parents. Characteristically these lies start at age four to five. Lies of this type are also prominent during adolescence when the adolescent, in order to effect separation, must make the parents unaware of his/her behaviors, thoughts, and feelings (Goldberg, 1973).

This need for autonomy occurs particularly in the sexual realm and other excursions into that which is regarded as adult behavior.

Pretense/impression management

The young child is unaware of how his or her demeanor and emotions are signaled to other persons.

This is called pretense (or impression management) and although this word is sometimes used derogatorily it is, in fact, a necessary developmental skill.

One example of pretense is that of learning how to control one’s emotions in order not to make another person uncomfortable, such as how to appear gracious and thankful for an unwanted gift or invitation. Small children, when given an inappropriate gift, will immediately voice their displeasure. Older children, normally beginning at about age eight to nine, are able to disguise their disappointment or unhappiness and feign pleasure and/or gratitude.

An example is when a grandmother provides a gift that would be more appropriate for much younger children. Similarly, students and employees learn to disguise feelings of dislike, displeasure, or anger toward teachers and employers.

Children learn how not to act hurt or vulnerable when teased by their classmates. Thus, healthy and effective functioning in society includes the ability to disguise one’s true emotional state to others and to feign appropriate emotions and attitudes.

Lies of loyolty

Children are told, often beginning in early childhood, that there “is nothing worse than a liar”.

Simultaneously, and particularly as they start school, they are also told “there is nothing worse than a traitor” (or “fink” in the vernacular). These two edicts set up one of the first ethical dilemmas for children.

Almost inevitably a child will be asked to identify which of his or her siblings and/or classmates was responsible for some type of misbehavior. One can respond by lying, “I don’t know”, or by betraying a friend. Students quickly learn that it is far better to be punished for lying than to be socially ostracized for disloyalty.

This type of lying then extends throughout life and includes such behaviors as the provision of incomplete or false letters of recommendation, lies to cover absences or tardiness for fellow employees, and so forth.

Altruistic lies

With increasing maturity, the child learns that at times the truth can be hurtful, not only to oneself but to others (Goldberg, 1973). There is an increasing sensitivity to the feelings and sensibilities of others. To quote Vasek (1986), “The skills required in deception are also used in being compassionate and coordinating our actions with those of others and without them society might not exist.”

As reported by DePaulo and colleagues, we often say supportive things we do not believe in our attempts to make people feel better about themselves (DePaulo et al., 1996; DePaulo & Bell, 1996).

Other altruistic lies may be to protect fellow human beings even at the risk of personal safety; for example, the Dutch people who helped hide Jews during the Second World War and who lied about knowledge of their whereabouts.

Altruistic lies are also exemplified by physicians’ statements to sick/dying patients. Which one of us has not tried to provide unwarranted optimism or minimize complications for someone suffering from an agonizing terminal illness?
Lies to promote self-esteem

As each of us mature, we develop a sense of personal identity. A part of that identity is the “personal myth” (Green, 1991). This myth is composed of our views of ourselves as competent effective people (or sometimes as victims) who have persevered against adversity. We tend to minimize our faults, exaggerate our accomplishments, and see ourselves in a generally favorable light. This positive view helps sustain us through difficult times and provides an outside face to the world of competence and geniality.

Paulhus (1998) found that self-enhancement and self-promotion are intrapsychically adaptive in regard to facilitating a positive view of oneself. Individuals with more of these characteristics make good first impressions, appearing to be agreeable, well adjusted and competent. With increased contact, however, the initial impression deteriorates and such persons are perceived more negatively.