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Liar, Liar: Children with good memories are better liars

lying child eyeing cookie jar

Children who benefit from a good memory are much better at covering up lies, researchers from the University of Sheffield have discovered. Experts found a link between verbal memory and covering up lies following a study which investigated the role of working memory in verbal deception amongst children.

The study saw six to seven year old children presented with the opportunity to do something they were instructed not to -peek at the final answers on the back of a card during a trivia game.

A hidden camera and correct answers to the question, which was based on the name of a fictitious cartoon character, enabled the researchers to identify who had peeked, despite denials.

Further questioning, including about the colour of the answer on the cards, allowed researchers to identify who was a good liar, by lying to both entrapment questions; or a bad liar, by lying about one or none of the entrapment questions.

During the experiment, researchers from the Universities of Sheffield and North Florida then measured two elements: verbal and visuo-spatial working memory in the children.

Verbal working memory is the number of words a person can remember all at the same time. Visuo-spatial working memory is the number of images a person can remember all at the same time.

Results showed that the good liars performed better in the verbal working memory test in both processing and recall, compared to the bad liars.

The link between lying and verbal memory is thought to stem from the fact that covering lies involves keeping track of lots of verbal information. As a result, kids who possessed better memories and could keep track of lots of information were able to successfully make and maintain a cover story for their lie.

In contrast, there was no difference in visuo-spatial working scores between good and bad liars. The researchers suspect this is because lying usually doesn’t involve keeping track of images, so visuo-spatial information is less important.

The results are the first time it has been shown that verbal working memory in particular has strong links to lying, not just any working memory.

“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.

“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,” Dr Hoicka continued.

“This research shows that thought processes, specifically verbal working memory, are important to complex social interactions like lying because the children needed to juggle multiple pieces of information while keeping the researcher’s perspective in mind,” Dr Tracy Alloway, project lead from the University of North Florida, said.

Alloway, T., McCallum, F., Alloway, R., & Hoicka, E. (2015). Liar, liar, working memory on fire: Investigating the role of working memory in childhood verbal deception Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 137, 30-38 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2015.03.013

10 responses

  1. Amber

    I wonder if there is any correlation between how a child is raised and how well they can lie. It’s interesting that a strong verbal memory is related to lying skills, but, as with just about everything else, there is probably more to how well a person can lie than just how well they can remember what they say. I would also like to see a study done about what causes a person to be more likely to lie.


    June 24, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    • Amber

      Nonetheless, the study makes sense. It does not surprise me that verbal memory and how well someone can lie is related. But, I wonder if someone with a good memory, whether or not it is a verbal memory, could still be a “bad liar.” There is more to telling a lie than simply memorizing what is said.


      June 24, 2015 at 5:43 pm

      • Very true (and very detailed comment, I really appreciate that) I would think that just because a child lies and can remember those lies, they could still be horrible at the act of lying. As always I appreciate your take on the whole thing and you raise some interesting questions.


        June 26, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    • I think the main point was if you have a good working memory lying will be easier since you would be able to keep your story correct. I honestly don’t think that good memory and lying are in anyway related, however I would bet that how a child is raised and how well they remember correlates.


      June 26, 2015 at 5:46 pm

  2. Christy

    This is an interesting method of testing for memory. Not many want to be proud of their children being able to lie, but if they are aware their child has a good direct memory, that child is developing a great memory. With there being many methods of memory, verbal working memory is a good trait. Having a verbal working memory will help with learning as the child progresses through their education. Memory is a key factor with success through education and life. This is a unique study, and explains positives and negatives through the answer.


    June 25, 2015 at 8:56 am

    • I agree and it would be interesting to test a child’s memory by how well they can lie (in a controlled setting of course!) I would suspect there are probably other metrics that could be used, but this would be one of the more interesting ways to do it and it might actually be fun for the child too, which is important in something like memory testing.


      June 26, 2015 at 5:50 pm

  3. Breanna

    This is very interesting. I agree that lying involves keeping track of lots of verbal information. I wonder if there is anything else to it though. Possibly if a good liar’s hippocampus is more developed than that of a bad liar. Or if biological or environmental factors play a role in being good at lying.


    June 28, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    • Well, like most things, there is probably a lot o factors that go into it. I would think that biological and environmental factors play a role in being a good liar.


      June 30, 2015 at 8:23 am

  4. Jess Schwegler

    To sufficiently remember a lie, you must store the information of what actually happened, then also be able to store and recall the facts that you want to use instead of the truth. After the initial lie, you must be able to continue recalling this fake memory and go back to the same false facts in order to preserve your lie and the accountability of your story. I believe for a lot of people that coming up with a decent lie wouldn’t be too hard. I think what would be difficult for most people would be coming back to that lie and repeating the false memories and facts, time and time again without discrepancy.
    The fact that during the lying process, verbal working memory is utilized more than visuo-spatial working memory seems to make sense to me. There are not truly many pictures that you will be likely needed to remember in order to recite a lie, maybe some snapshots (for example remember a color of something). I do believe that there is most likely more mental processes that are involved in lying and doing it well, I am interested in seeing further research into the topic.
    I am also interested in the topic of when children learn to lie. I personally believe that parenting may have an ill (even if only small) affect on children’s learning to lie. Many parents come have horrible excuses why children can’t touch something, have something, do something, etc. I have a feeling some children must know better, they know the outcomes their parents speak of, really won’t happen. They really, just learn that lies exist and being to explore the use of them.


    June 28, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    • That is a good question and raises the other interesting question, when does a child learn that they have the ability to lie? Kids are more perceptive than we give them credit for and I have to think you are right, kids probably see their parents or other adults doing it and realise they can do it too.


      June 30, 2015 at 8:34 am

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