The Truth About Lying
Misbehavior (lying) vs. stress behavior (confabulating)
Posted November 22, 2016
Lying is the quintessential example of misbehaviour, but confabulating is a stress behaviour. The big challenge in helping a child develop truthfulness is recognizing which is which, and knowing how best to respond when we’re dealing with confabulation.
Pinocchio saw the Carabineer from afar and tried his best to escape between the legs of the big fellow, but without success. The Carabineer grabbed him by the nose (it was an extremely long one and seemed made on purpose for that very thing) and returned him to Mastro Geppetto. The little old man wanted to pull Pinocchio’s ears. Think how he felt when, upon searching for them, he discovered that he had forgotten to make them! All he could do was to seize Pinocchio by the back of the neck and take him home. As he was doing so, he shook him two or three times and said to him angrily: “We’re going home now. When we get home, then we’ll settle this matter!”
Pinocchio, on hearing this, threw himself on the ground and refused to take another step. One person after another gathered around the two. Some said one thing, some another. “Poor Marionette,” called out a man. “I am not surprised he doesn’t want to go home. Geppetto no doubt will beat him unmercifully he is so mean and cruel!” “Geppetto looks like a good man,” added another, “but with boys he’s a real tyrant. If we leave that poor Marionette in his hands he may tear him to pieces!” They said so much that, finally, the Carabineer ended matters by setting Pinocchio at liberty and dragging Geppetto to prison. The poor old fellow did not know how to defend himself, but wept and wailed like a child. “Ungrateful boy! To think I tried so hard to make you a well-behaved Marionette! I deserve it, however! I should have given the matter more thought.”
Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883)
In Walt Disney’s hands, the moral of Pinocchio is perfectly straightforward: tell the truth and you’ll be rewarded in life (in Pinocchio’s case, with life). But Collodi’s original intentions were considerably more complex. Part political allegory and part pedagogical primer, it reads at times -- as in the above passage – as something of a confessional autobiography; for Collodi himself, childless and irascible, is said to have been rather like the Geppetto described above. Most important of all, the deeply vexing question that Collodi raises gets completely lost in the Disney version: namely, to what extent is this a story about Pinocchio and to what extent is it about Geppetto?
Collodi/Geppetto’s conundrum is that faced by any parent: how does one raise an honest child and not just a well-behaved marionette? But for Self-Reg this raises a number of fundamental questions:
- Why, in terms of self-regulation, is truthfulness so important for a child’s overall wellbeing?
- How do we deter a child from lying to avoid getting in trouble (“antisocial lying”), while at the same time teaching them when and why it’s appropriate to lie (“prosocial lying”)?
- Why is it so hard for some children to outgrow antisocial lying, or to learn prosocial?
- And most important of all: how do we help a recalcitrant child acquire the desire to be truthful, as opposed to merely becoming more submissive?
This last question is especially important in regards to the child who doggedly lies when confronted with some transgression he’s committed. On the authoritarian view, such a child needs to be consistently and firmly disciplined. According to this way of thinking, the worst thing you can do is be permissive: assuming this wasn’t the cause of the problem in the first place. But research by Victoria Talwar and Kang Lee is telling us that that we need to tread far more carefully here. In one study, they showed how a punitive environment can actually foster dishonesty [Punitive Environment]. More recently, Talwar and her colleagues have shown that emphasizing the positive benefits of truth-telling is significantly more effective for promoting honesty than stressing the negative consequences of lying [The Effects of Punishment and Appeals for Honesty on Children's Truth-telling Behaviour].
If our goal truly is to help a child who is having trouble going down this path, then what we need to figure out is what may be blocking him and how best to help him overcome the obstacle. Above all, we want to avoid seeing this negative behaviour become entrenched, leading to the downstream development of a sociopathic disorder marked by the absence of any sense of guilt when lying. When that point is reached, the possibilities for change are severely limited.
But one of the basic tenets of Self-Reg is that this never need happen, and indeed, that we can always turn a child’s transgressions into a positive learning opportunity. This point is especially true in regards to lying. But the problem here is that truthfulness as such cannot be engendered simply by producing a strong fear of lying (which sounds rather like that book by Erica Jong). To be sure, fear of punishment can be a powerful motivator; but on its own it does little to promote “moral growth,” and can actually impede it [Moral Growth].
The first step to helping any child, and not just the one having trouble, is to distinguish between misbehaviour and stress behaviour. The key to misbehaviour is that the child acted intentionally and could have acted differently: that he was aware that he shouldn’t have done something and was capable of exercising restraint. We see him as having acted for the wrong reasons: e.g., because he was selfish, devious, lacking self-control. That’s why we punish misbehaviour: because we’re trying to mold our child’s character, help him develop a sense of right and wrong, acquire self-discipline.
But in the case of stress-behaviour, the child is not fully aware of what he is doing or why: he has a limited capacity to act differently or restrain himself. He didn’t act the way he did for the “wrong” reasons; he didn’t act for any reason at all! Rather, his behaviour was triggered by systems deep inside the brain that, when a child is under too much stress, over-rule and even curb the parts of the prefrontal cortex needed to think about what one is doing, or refrain from acting on a negative impulse. Punish a child for what was actually a stress-behaviour and all you do is add to the child’s stress load – and your own.
Lying is the quintessential example of misbehaviour: an intentional falsehood uttered so as to avoid punishment or to serve some self-interest. But our big problem as far as socializing a child is concerned is that, although lying is a clear case of misbehaviour, sometimes the child is actually confabulating, which, as we’ll see, is a stress behaviour. And quite often, what starts out as lying turns into confabulation.
This last point is critical. The big problem for adults when a child lies is that, whatever might be going on in the child’s mind, his action invariably triggers anger in us: especially in cases where the behaviour is habitual or the lying is blatant. But if our anger governs what we say or do, we risk sending the child into fight-or-flight and subverting any opportunity for moral growth. That, in essence, is Collodi’s point and the reason why he felt the deeper lesson here applies as much to Geppetto as it does to Pinocchio.
What typically happens is that we exhort the child to “tell the truth,” threatening him with dire consequences should he fail to do so. But push a child hard enough and you can send him into confabulation. Strictly speaking, “confabulation” refers to the curious phenomenon seen in patients with some form of brain damage that impairs their memory or self-awareness [Brain Fiction]. When asked why they did something that they are completely unaware of having done (or not done), they create a highly plausible story. There is no conscious intention to deceive operating here; it seems rather to be the product of a basic human drive to see ourselves, and have others see us, as rational beings in control of our actions. It’s a drive that leads to confabulation in all sorts of ordinary situations, and not just in cases of aphasia.
I’ve lost track of how many children and teens I’ve seen who were caught up in confabulation. The reason why this happens can be complex: not just because they’ve gone into fight-or-flight, but often as a defence mechanism (e.g., to preserve a sense of identity or self-esteem). The problem is that what may have started out as an act of lying has led to a form of self-protective amnesia, or the construction of a false memory in which, of course, they are totally blameless. Hence the reason why they can lie so convincingly: it’s because, in the full psychological sense of the term, they are no longer “lying”: they genuinely can’t recall haven’t done anything wrong or fully believe in their innocence and are convinced that they’re being unjustly accused of something they haven’t done.
What we need to remember when this happens is that the goal remains the child’s moral growth: not simply getting him to admit the truth. For the “truth” becomes what the confabulating child believes it is, and brute force is only going to send him into freeze. Yet the authoritarian approach to discipline insists that it’s for the child’s own good that he be compelled to admit the truth. All too often what then happens is that the child’s freeze is misconstrued as compliance and any opportunity for developing truthfulness has been lost. The child or teen stays stuck in what is, in fact, a very early stage of social development.
Lying begins around the age of 2-3 as a way of avoiding getting into trouble. (Interestingly, the “modified temptation resistance paradigm” that scientists use to study the development of lying is very much the same sort of stress-test that scientists use in the marshmallow task.) As children get older they become more adept at lying: they learn how to stick to a story, add convincing details, control their facial expressions, maintain eye gaze. Far from lacking inhibitory control, the child is growing in this regard by leaps and bounds; it’s just that he’s using these executive function skills to persist in what, at bottom, is an infantile response to acting on what is likely an infantile impulse. And that is the whole point of moral growth: helping a child move past this immature stage that he regresses to in times of excessive stress.
But for Self-Reg, the deeper reason why this growth is so important is because persistent lying becomes a maladaptive coping strategy: maladaptive because it exacerbates the child’s stress load – across all five domains of the Self-Reg model. The act of trying to stick to a lie becomes a significant stressor, which is the secret to lie detectors: they are designed to pick up on a surge in the subject’s sympathetic nervous system regardless of what he’s saying or showing on his face.
This is precisely the reason why children and teens – or for that matter, adults that have suffered a neural lesion – confabulate: it’s an reflexive action to reduce stress. The stress of not knowing why you did something, or getting caught for doing something that deep down you know you shouldn’t have done. The kid in this situation is caught in a stress bind: telling the truth is a huge stressor, but so too is lying. A still immature mind – that invariably is already struggling with too high a stress load – finds itself in a predicament in which confabulation may seem the only way out.
In this state the child is prone to limbic outbursts, the most common of which is: “I don’t care!” All too often these avowals are taken literally, rather than seen as expressions of hyperarousal. Adults find these outbursts even more exasperating than lying: they see it as compounding the misbehaviour, rather than as pure stress behaviour. And their annoyance leads them to ratchet up the stress, rather than doing the one thing they should in order to help the child develop the capacity for truthfulness: reduce the child’s limbic arousal. For a child or teen will only process our lessons about the importance of truthfulness when he feels safe and secure. But if anger governs our response and it’s our limbic system rather than our PFC that dictates what we say or how we say it, we end up in fight-or-flight ourselves, shouting or shutting down emotionally. Social Engagement completely breaks down, and with it, any chance of fostering moral growth.
That is clearly not to say that we should ignore transgressions; it is to say that we must turn off a kindled alarm – our own as well as the child’s – so that the child or teen can confront and learn from the experience. Learn that certain kinds of impulses need to be resisted; that others value truthfulness; that accepting responsibility is ultimately less stressful than fleeing from it. All children and teens have a deep desire to learn these lessons and so meet adult approval; but excessive stress blocks their way.
I’ve seen so many examples of what happens when the child’s stress is reduced, but one in particular stands out: a 13-year-old girl who had taken some money from her mother’s wallet and stoutly denied the act when confronted by her foster parents. But rather than shouting at or threatening his daughter, as he had repeatedly done in the past to no avail, dad sent her a text message gently explaining why the action was serious and what the consequences would be. And the same kid, who had hitherto been so oppositional, meekly texted back “OK,” and did not challenge the terms of the punishment. It would seem that by removing the stress of the face-to-face encounter – inadvertently produced by tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, gestures – the teen’s alarm was turned off and she was able to learn from the experience and take an important step along the path to truthfulness.
The reason why she was able to take this step was because, by turning off her alarm, her dad was able to help ease her out of confabulating and come to terms with the stress that she was creating for herself. This result constitutes what, from a Self-Reg perspective, is the ultimate reason why it’s so important to recognize the distinction between lying and confabulation: it is that we can’t help a child or teen learn how to self-regulate if she insists that she isn’t stressed. A similar point applies to the confabulation seen in neurological disease: you can’t get a patient to do physiotherapy if they insist there’s nothing wrong with a paralyzed limb. In both cases, it is fostering a sense of safety and not “a harsh dose of reality” that leads to growth: moral as well as physical.
Collodi intuitively saw all this. There is only one episode in The Adventures of Pinocchio in which Pinocchio’s nose grows longer, and this is not triggered by lying per se, but by stress. In fact, Collodi deliberately blurs the boundary between stress and lying, and the big lesson to be learned from his fable is that Pinocchio and Geppetto find themselves caught in a stress cycle: an entrenched state of shared anxiety in which Pinocchio is no closer to truthfulness and Geppetto is left emotionally prostrate. But together they learn to reduce limbic arousal – their own and each other’s – and by the end of the story it is Pinocchio who calms his father’s fears and leads him back to safety. It is a powerful metaphor for the importance of truthfulness in every child’s “journey along the Interbrain,” and just how arduous this journey can be for some kids [Self-Reg].