Why kids can't lie but you can (the key to emotional intelligence)

by Dorian Minors

December 30, 2015

Analects  |  Newsletter


Did you know, kids don’t lie until about the age of three? Well, that’s not entirely true. Babies are known to fake-cry, apparently in a less-than-delightful effort to get you to pay more attention to them. But this is probably a function of them...

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Did you know, kids don’t lie until about the age of three? Well, that’s not entirely true. Babies are known to fake-cry, apparently in a less-than-delightful effort to get you to pay more attention to them. But this is probably a function of them learning (or being born with the knowledge) that you’ll do anything to silence the maddening sound of a babies screams. It’s negative reinforcement in it’s most primal form (and you think you’re good at manipulating children!).

So, back to the point, young kids don't lie

It might be more accurate to say, young kids can't lie (not even to themselves, like you are right now). This is because young brains have to learn that other people experience the world differently. This nuance of our development comes under the umbrella of a concept called Theory of Mind, which essentially refers to one's ability to understand another person's perspective. When children are very young, they aren't able to quite fathom that other people see the world differently; to put themselves in another's shoes. This could perhaps be due to a lack of experience or perhaps it's something biologically determined. This is most endearingly displayed in what's known as the false-belief task:

[embed]https://youtu.be/8hLubgpY2_w?t=46s[/embed] In case you don’t have the time (or the data) to watch that, I’ll explain. The narrator shows you a Crayola crayon box. You’d assume there were crayons inside, but the narrator shows you that he’s replaced the crayons with candles. Now Snoopy rocks up. Snoopy would also assume that there are crayons inside the box, right? Well, not according to this adorable little toddler. He assumes Snoopy is clairvoyant and already knows that there are candles inside. He’s not lying, he’s just literally incapable of understanding that Snoopy doesn’t know what he now knows; that other people are experiencing the world differently to him. He thinks everyone shares the same knowledge, memories and experiences as he does.

Theory of Mind determines whether people like you

Now, researchers are still debating the age at which Theory of Mind starts to develop and that perhaps this test isn't fully accounting for all the variables. Regardless, children have a serious problem putting themselves in others' shoes. Which means that they literally can't lie, since they assume you'd automatically know. They're living in a universe invented by Ricky Gervais. Which leads me to my next point; Much like in Gervais' 'Invention of Lying', a world in which we don't realise that everyone has their own truth means a world of pissed off people. Or, put another way, without Theory of Mind we can't develop emotional intelligence - a key to success in social relationships. Theory of Mind has been linked very closely to the development of perspective-taking and empathy. In fact, it's thought that those who don't properly develop Theory of Mind are at risk of developing psychopathic traits. That's not to say they'll be a psychopath, but certainly unpleasant to be around. Each of us develops unique expectations of the world that govern how we act, and how we assume others should act. Violating these expectations causes all kinds of relational trouble. Even our earliest conversations are dictated (see what I did there?) by our expectations of how small talk should go.

Alright, so Theory of Mind is important but I'm not three anymore...

Right you are, old sport. But people have trouble with perspective-taking right through adulthood. Theory of Mind is something we can always improve on. Changes in the environment that confuse us, or in particular, are different to what we're usually accustomed to, can completely override our natural empathic tendencies. Or when things get particularly complicated. In fact, that same book I just linked to notes that a common phenomenon known as hindsight bias causes us to lose often the ability to accurately judge the perspective-taking information available to us during any given scenario. So, while Aristotle tells us that
To perceive is to suffer
Know that it's that very same perception, that intrinsic quality of emotional intelligence is a fundamental aspect of what allows your relationships to continue (in a positive way). Without it, there'd be less empathy and although I wouldn't want to live in a world where we can't lie, I certainly wouldn't want to live in a world where there's no empathy. Besides, at least if others are suffering, you can do something about it. I remember an episode of Louie, where his kid is complaining she didn't get enough mango or something and he turns to her and says
the only time you need to worry about what's your neighbour's bowl is if you're checking to make sure they have enough
Boom. On the topic of emotional intelligence, check out seven conversation hacks that require a touch of emotional insight. Or speaking of lies, you might be interested to know that everyone is lying to you, and you let them. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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