“My son doesn’t lie,” insisted Steve, a slightly frazzled father in his mid-thirties, as he watched Nick, his eager six-year-old, enthralled in a game of marbles with a McGill student. Steve was quite proud of his son, describing him as easygoing and very social. He had Nick bark out an impressive series of addition problems that Nick had memorized, as if that was somehow proof of Nick’s sincerity.
Steve then took his assertion down a notch. “Well, I’ve never heard him lie.” Perhaps that, too, was a little strong. “I’m sure he must lie, some, but when I hear it, I’ll still be surprised.” He had brought his son in after seeing an advertisement of Talwar’s in a local parenting magazine, which had the headline, “Can your child tell the difference between the truth and a lie?” The truth was, Steve was torn. He was curious if Nick would lie, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. The idea of his son being dishonest with him was profoundly troubling.
Steve had an interesting week ahead of him, because Dr. Talwar had just asked Steve to keep a diary for the coming week, documenting every lie that his son told over the next seven days. And I knew for a fact his son did lie—I’d seen him do it.
Nick thought he’d spent the hour playing a series of games with a couple of nice women. First having played marbles in the cheery playroom, Nick then played more games with the women, one-on-one. He was in no real hurry to leave the lab, with its yellow-painted walls decorated with dozens of children’s drawings and shelves full of toys. He’d won two prizes, a cool toy car and a bag of plastic dinosaurs, and everyone said he did very well.
What the first-grader didn’t know was that those games—fun as they were—were really a battery of psychological tests, and the women were Talwar’s trained researchers earning doctorates in child psychology. The other key fact Nick didn’t know was that when he was playing games one-on-one, there was a hidden camera taping his every move and word. In an adjacent room, Ashley and I watched the whole thing from a monitor.
Nick cheated, then he lied, and then he lied again. He did so unhesitatingly, without a single glimmer of remorse. Instead, he later beamed as everyone congratulated him on winning the games: he told me he couldn’t wait to come back the next weekend to play more games. If I didn’t know what was going on, I’d have thought he was a young sociopath in the making. I still actually wonder if that’s the case, despite Talwar’s assurances to the contrary.
One of Talwar’s experiments, a variation on a classic experiment known as the temptation paradigm, is known in the lab as “The Peeking Game.” Courtesy of the hidden camera, we’d watched Nick play it with another one of Talwar’s graduate students, Cindy Arruda. She took Nick into a very small private room and told him they were going to play a guessing game. Nick turned and straddled his chair to face the wall, while Arruda would bring out a toy that made a sound. Nick had to guess the identity of the toy based on the sound that it had made. If he was right three times, he’d win a prize.
The first toy was easy. Nick bounced in his chair with excitement when he’d figured out that the siren was from a police car. The second toy emitted a baby’s cry—it took Nick a couple tries before he landed on “baby doll.” He was relieved to finally be right.
“Does it get harder every time?” he asked, obviously concerned, as he pressed the baby doll’s tummy to trigger another cry.
“Uh, no,” Arruda stammered, despite knowing it was indeed about to get harder for Nick.
Nick turned back to the wall, waiting for the last toy. His small figure curled up over the back of the chair as if he was playing a wonderful game of hide-and-seek.
Arruda brought out a soft, stuffed soccer ball, and placed it on top of a greeting card that played music. She cracked the card for a moment, triggering it to play a music box jingle of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”
Nick, of course, was stumped.
Before he had a chance to guess, Arruda suddenly said that she’d forgotten something and had to leave the room for a little bit, promising to be right back. She admonished Nick not to peek at the toy while she was gone.
Five seconds in, Nick was struggling not to peek—he started to turn around but fought the urge and looked back at the wall before he saw anything. He held out for another eight seconds, but the temptation was too great. At thirteen seconds, he gave in. Turning to look, he saw the soccer ball, then immediately returned to his “hide-and-seek” position.
When Arruda returned, she’d barely come through the door before Nick—still facing the wall as if he had never peeked—burst out with the fact that the toy was a soccer ball. We could hear the triumph in his voice—until Arruda stopped him short, telling Nick to wait for her to get seated.
That mere split-second gave Nick just enough time to realize that he should sound unsure of his answer, or else she would know he’d peeked. Suddenly, the glee was gone, and he sounded a little more hesitant. “A soccer ball?” he asked, making it sound like a pure guess.
When he turned around to face Arruda and see the revealed toy, Arruda told Nick he was right, and he acted very pleased.
Arruda then asked Nick if he had peeked when she was away.
“No,” he said, quick and expressionless. Then a big smile spread across his face.
Without challenging him, or even letting a note of suspicion creep into her voice, Arruda asked Nick how he’d figured out the sound came from a soccer ball.
Nick shrank down in his seat for a second, cupping his chin in his hands. He knew he needed a plausible answer, but his first attempt wasn’t close. With a perfectly straight face he said, “The music had sounded like a ball.” Hunting for a better answer, but not getting any closer to it, he added, “The ball sounded black and white.” His face gave no outward indication that he realized this made no sense, but he kept on talking, as if he felt he needed something better. Then Nick said that the music sounded like the soccer balls he played with at school: they squeaked. He nodded—this was the good one to go with—and then further explained that the music sounded like the squeak he heard when he kicked a ball. To emphasize this, his winning point, he brushed his hand against the side of the toy ball, as if to demonstrate the way his foot kicking the side of the ball produces a squeaking sound.
This experiment was not just a test to see if children cheat and lie under temptation. It’s also designed to test children’s ability to extend a lie, offering plausible explanations and avoiding what the scientists call “leakage”—inconsistencies that reveal the lie for what it is. Nick’s whiffs at covering up his lie would be scored later by coders who watched the videotape. So Arruda accepted without question the fact that soccer balls play Beethoven when they’re kicked and gave Nick his prize. He was thrilled.