Children tell white lies to make others feel better

Br J Dev Psychol. 2015 Sep;33(3):259-70. doi: 10.1111/bjdp.12083. Epub 2015 Mar 15.


We investigated whether children tell white lies simply out of politeness or as a means to improve another person's mood. A first experimental phase probed children's individual insight to use white lies when prosocial behaviour was called for. We compared a situation in which a person had expressed sadness about her artwork and the goal was to make her feel better (Sad condition) with a situation in which a person was indifferent about her work (Neutral condition). Children at 7 years and older were more likely to tell a white lie than the blunt truth in the Sad over the Neutral condition. Five-year-olds showed only a trend. A second phase tested whether children selectively use white lie telling after it was modelled by an adult. Results showed that after modelling, children from all age groups were significantly more likely to use white lies in the Sad condition than in the Neutral condition. Taken together, these results show that children are attentive to another person's affective states when choosing whether to tell a white lie or tell the truth. We discuss the emergence of this behaviour in relation to children's developing social cognition and the increasing sophistication of children's prosocial behaviour.

Keywords: lying; prosociality; social cognition; social norms.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Affect*
  • Child
  • Child Behavior / psychology*
  • Child Development*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Deception*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Social Perception*