Dr. Vasudevi Reddy from the University of Portsmouth has garnered a fair amount of publicity for a study that “identified seven categories of deception used between six months and three-years-old”, according to the Daily Telegraph (1 July), which also reveals:
Whether lying about raiding the biscuit tin or denying they broke a toy, all children try to mislead their parents at some time. Yet it now appears that babies learn to deceive from a far younger age than anyone previously suspected. Behavioural experts have found that infants begin to lie from as young as six months. Simple fibs help to train them for more complex deceptions in later life. Until now, psychologists had thought the developing brains were not capable of the difficult art of lying until four years old.
[…] Infants quickly learnt that using tactics such as fake crying and pretend laughing could win them attention. By eight months, more difficult deceptions became apparent, such as concealing forbidden activities or trying to distract parents’ attention. By the age of two, toddlers could use far more devious techniques, such as bluffing when threatened with a punishment.
Reddy’s findings feature in an article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the abstract of which reveals:
[…] We still do not have a full picture of the development of deceptive actions in human infants and toddlers or an explanation of why it emerges. This paper applies Byrne & Whiten’s functional taxonomy of tactical deception to the social behaviour of human infants and toddlers using data from three previous studies. The data include a variety of acts, such as teasing, pretending, distracting and concealing, which are not typically considered in relation to human deception. This functional analysis shows the onset of non-verbal deceptive acts to be surprisingly early. Infants and toddlers seem to be able to communicate false information (about themselves, about shared meanings and about events) as early as true information. It is argued that the development of deception must be a fundamentally social and communicative process and that if we are to understand why deception emerges at all, the scientist needs to get ‘back to the rough ground’ as Wittgenstein called it and explore the messy social lives in which it develops.
In a quick search I couldn’t find the “three previous studies” referred to, but I did find some other work from Reddy that indicates she has been conducting research in this area for some time. This is from the abstract of Newton, Reddy & Bull, 2000:
…the deceptions of a 21/2-year-old child over a 6-month period were shown to be varied, flexible, context appropriate and too complex to be ‘blind’ learned strategies. It is argued that children’s deceptive skills develop from pragmatic need and situational exigencies rather than from conceptual developments; they may learn to lie in the same way as they learn to speak.
Vasudevi Reddy (2007). Getting back to the rough ground: deception and ‘social living’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences). 362(1480): 621-637
Newton P.; Reddy V.; Bull R. (2000). Children’s everyday deception and performance on false-belief tasks. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, Volume 18, Number 2, June 2000 , pp. 297-317(21)
Hat tips to:
Sneaky babies learn to lie before they learn to talk (Globe and Mail, 3 July)
Don’t Be Fooled by the Swaddling Clothes: Babies Are Liars , Wired (3 July)
Babies are big fat liars! (Omni Brain, 4 July)