Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Sneaky babies learn to lie before they learn to talk

Babies aren't as innocent as they look, according to new research out of the United Kingdom.

Sweet little infants actually learn to deceive before they can talk, says University of Portsmouth psychology department head Vasudevi Reddy in a study that challenges traditional notions of innocence while confirming many parents' suspicions about their sneaky babies.

Most psychologists have believed that children cannot really lie until about four years of age. But after dozens of interviews with parents, and years spent observing children, Dr. Reddy has determined that infants as young as seven months are quite skilled at pulling the wool over their parents' eyes.

Story continues below advertisement

Rather than being a sign that your child is the next James Frey or Richard Nixon, Dr. Reddy says, baby lies are simply part of learning social interaction.

Long before children can understand complex ideas about truth and deception, Dr. Reddy writes in the April issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, "they are engaging in subtle manipulations of their own and others' actions, which succeed in deceiving others at least temporarily."

There was the 11-month-old who, caught in the act of reaching for the forbidden soil of a house plant, quickly turned his outstretched hand into a wave, his mother reported to Dr. Reddy, "as though he was saying, 'Oh, I wasn't really going to touch the soil, Mom, I was waving at you.' "

Babies also seem to think they are masters of the Jedi mind trick, using steady eye contact as a distraction technique. Another 11-month-old, upon being presented with toast she didn't want to eat, would hold eye contact with her mother while discreetly chucking the toast onto the floor.

"She's very sneaky," the mother told Dr. Reddy, "she thinks you can't see it."

Fake crying is another trick babies learn early on to get attention, Dr. Reddy says. The researcher defines "fake" crying as being more calculated than the usual "I'm tired/hungry/wet/hurt/lonely" cries.

"In one case the mother thought it sounded 'put on,' but watched from a crack in the door, and noticed that there were pauses in the crying which seemed rather like waiting to see if it worked," Dr. Reddy wrote in an e-mail.

Story continues below advertisement

"If crying is normally closely connected to some discomfort or distress, and this is its typical use, then disconnecting it from that typical use and using it more deliberately or instrumentally to get attention constitutes its fakeness."

But babies don't deceive their parents out of some malevolent impulse. On the contrary, it's their way of striking up a conversation, Dr. Reddy theorizes.

Humans are born with a desire to get emotional responses from others - lacking vocabulary and mobility, babies may find trickery is an excellent way to make parents react.

"Infants engage in deceiving owing to a motivation to engage with others in emotional dialogue," Dr. Reddy writes.

Either that, or they're just very, very naughty babies.

Report an error Licensing Options

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨