Whether it’s a white lie or a whopper, kids at this age are most likely to pull the wool over their parents’ eyes. (Photo: Stocksy)
Everyone lies, at least a little bit. But in news that won’t shock parents used to sketchy answers about bad grades and missed curfews, no age group fibs as frequently as teenagers.
That’s the conclusion of a new study, which examined lying across the entire lifespan. The main finding: While adolescents tell the most lies, college-age and young adults between 18 and 29 are the best, most successful liars.
Young children between ages 6 and 8 and adults over 60 were found to be the least dishonest age groups and also the least skilled liars, according to the study, published in the September issue of the journal Acta Psychologica.
Study authors looked at 1,005 kids and adults between the ages of 6 and 77. To find out about lying frequency, they asked each subject to self-report how many lies they had told in the past 24 hours.
On average, the study participants told two lies a day. Yet that number increased throughout childhood, with frequency peaking in the teen years at 2.8 fibs daily before petering out in the young adult years, midlife, and among senior citizens.
When it came to determining who were the best fibbers, the study authors asked subjects to answer certain yes-no questions that each had an obvious right answer, such as “can pigs fly.” Then they measured how quickly each participant answered each question.
What does response time have to do with lying? The researchers theorize that to lie successfully, a person must have high levels of “executive control,” in other words, the ability to suppress the truth almost instantly and not give away the fact that they aren’t telling the truth by stammering or pausing.
“Typically, people are slower and make more errors when lying, and this was taken as an index of the difficulty of lying,” study coauthor Bruno Verschuere, associate professor of forensic psychology at the University of Amsterdam, tells Yahoo Parenting.
Teens and young adults have the highest levels of executive control, the researchers think, because the prefrontal cortex of their brains are sharpest. Young kids have yet to develop executive control because the prefrontal cortex hasn’t matured. “That part of the brain matures at about age 25, then starts to decline in late adulthood,” says Verschuere,
While the study confirms what many parents have long suspected (and makes it clear that the teen TV drama Pretty Little Liars is perfectly named), it doesn’t delve into why teens lie — and what parents can do about it.
“Most people lie to get out of accountability or to avoid owning up to an error, and that’s generally the case with teenagers,” Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills–based child and family psychotherapist, tells Yahoo Parenting. “When younger children lie, it’s usually to get attention by sensationalizing.”
Also driving adolescents to deceive their parents is a subconscious need to separate and develop their own distinct identity. “At this age, kids are opposing and defying their parents, and that leads them to lie,” says Walfish.
Even though lying is part of growing up, that doesn’t mean parents have to accept it. “Honesty is the foundation of every relationship, and parents should insist that their kids tell them the truth,” says Walfish.
If it happens, “Sit with your teen and say that you understand why they told a specific lie, but that for you to feel secure, you need them to be honest,” she says. And praise the truth when they tell it rather than punish them harshly for doing something forbidden.