What does lying behavior in children have to do with working memory?

Our recent study investigated this issue. Working memory is the ability to process information. The higher a child’s verbal working memory, the better their ability to process the verbal information necessary to tell a believable lie.

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.

This research was featured in major news venues.

Six to seven year children had their verbal working memory tested. They were then asked a series of trivia questions written on a card and they were aware that the answers were written on the back of the card in different colors, alongside a picture. The researchers left the room and instructed the children not to look at the back of the card.

A hidden camera showed who looked at the back of the card. When the researchers asked them the answer to a question, those who peeked gave the correct answer. However, when asked entrapment questions regarding the color the answer was written in and the picture, those with higher verbal working memory answered them wrong, in order to verbally disguise that they peeked; those with lower verbal working memory answered the entrapment questions correctly, verbally revealing that they had peeked.

The children also had their visuo-spatial working memory tested. Visuo-spatial working memory is our ability to process visual information, like images and numbers. In contrast with verbal working memory, there was no association between avoiding entrapment and Visuo-spatial working memory ability. This is likely because telling a successful lie requires processing verbal information rather than visual.