Is There a Downside to Teenage Popularity—For Parents?

The Scientific Link Between Popularity And Dishonesty

Posted Jul 05, 2017

Certainly, young people do not have a corner on the market when it comes to lying.  Adults lie too.  Sometimes selfishly, other times selflessly, in order to preserve relationships. Yet regardless of the age of the deceiver, most people cannot detect deception.

The truth about lies has been consistently explained by the scientific community.  Flipping a coin is a frequent illustration of our abysmal lie-detecting prowess.  Nonetheless, a significant number of people consider themselves to be excellent lie spotters. Many of these people have something in common; they are parents.

Assessing the Credibility of Children

I meet many of these parents when they show up in the courtroom jury box, ready to perform their civic duty. “Do any of you consider yourselves to be particularly good at judging credibility?” I ask a pool of potential jurors during voir dire.  Inevitably, several hands shoot up.  When I ask “Why?” in most cases, the answer is predictably some version of “I have kids.” 

In some ways, the stated basis for their expertise makes perfect sense.  Although it isn´t having kids that magically transforms parents into expert lie detectors, it is observing the mannerisms of one´s own children over time that provides a behavioral baseline against which to compare divergent behavior—which may indicate deception.

Yet relational familiarity is a two way street.  Receivers gauge the authenticity of information based on a speaker´s normal behavior, but they also transmit their own clues about whether or not they are suspicious.  Deceivers are thus able to improve their craft by practicing deception within close relationships and monitoring reaction for signs of distrust.

In trial, because my jurors and witnesses will not know each other, relational familiarity will not give either party an advantage in the deception arena.  Yet because many of my cases have involved child or teenage witnesses, the psychology of adolescent credibility remains relevant.

Research reveals that while many young people become increasingly honest with age, interacting with peers provides an opportunity for those inclined toward dishonesty to refine the art of deception. 

Adolescent Honesty

Some research indicates that children become more truthful over time. Evans and Lee (2011) discovered a decrease in dishonesty between late childhood and middle adolescence.[i]  Truthfulness was tested by leaving children alone in a room and instructing them not to look at answers to a test. After the majority of children peeked, they were questioned to see if they would lie about cheating, and to gauge the sophistication level of such deception.

Evans and Lee speculate the observed increase in honesty as children aged might stem from a higher moral comprehension of lying, leading to confession of transgressions. Alternatively, the reduction in deception as children become older might reflect to a greater understanding and appreciation of the likelihood of getting caught.

More recent research corroborates the link between dishonesty and evolving social priorities.  A 2016 study by Lavoie et al. examined the circumstances under which children engage in socially accepted (polite) lies, versus socially unaccepted (instrumental lies).  Their findings revealed that children lie selectively to achieve social goals.[ii]  

Based on their findings, they speculated that as children age, dishonesty may evolve from being self-motivated to being other-motivated, which may indicate socialization toward behavior that is socially acceptable.  They also found that truthful children had lower social skills as compared to polite and instrumental liars.

As children become teenagers, some master social skills faster than others.  Social proficiency can create a challenge for parents of popular teens, because social competence can mask deception.

Socially Competent Teens Are Better Liars

There are scores of honest teenagers who have rightfully earned the trust of parents, teachers, and friends.  Their transparency and commitment to truth telling makes them role models for siblings and peers alike.  Other teens, however, lie.  The more socially adept teenagers are, the more proficient they are at deception.

Research by Feldman et al. (1999) found that teenagers become better liars as they age.[iii]  They found that adolescents higher in social competence are better liars, older adolescents are better than their younger counterparts, and younger girls are better deceivers than younger boys.

Because the study had participants judge the adolescents´ truthfulness based on their nonverbal behavior, the researchers proffered several possible explanations for the results. Individuals high in social competence may be more comfortable in social situations, and thus better at moderating nonverbal behavior.  They might be better at moderating their emotions, or they might have more practice at self-presentation because they socialize more frequently. They note that the practice makes perfect theory is consistent with previous research indicating extraverts lie more frequently than introverts.[iv]

The researchers noted that the most obvious liars in the study were young, less socially competent adolescents, due in part to their inability to effectively use social display rules of nonverbal deception.

Trust But Verify

All parents want to be able to trust their teenagers, who are exploring the increasing freedom that comes with age, and parents want them to make good decisions.  While an approach of “trust but verify” is not an ideal solution, it can help build trust.  The good news for young adults is that with increased parental trust comes increased freedom, and mutual relational satisfaction.  The goal is to raise happy, healthy, honest young people on their way to becoming successful, trustworthy adults. 

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert, who often speaks on the topic of detecting deception.  She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, detecting deception and judging credibility, and threat assessment.  She is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

References

[i] Angela D. Evans and Kang Lee, ”Verbal Deception From Late Childhood to Middle Adolescence and Its Relation to Executive Functioning Skills,” Developmental Psychology 47, no. 4 (2011): 1108-1116.

[ii] Jennifer Lavoie, Sarah Yachison, Angela Crossman, and Victoria Talwar, “Polite, instrumental, and dual liars,” International Journal of Behavioral Development 41, Issue 2, (2016): 257– 264.

[iii] Robert S. Feldman, Jason C. Tomasian, and Erik J. Coats, ”Nonverbal Deception Abilities and Adolescents´ Social Competence: Adolescents With Higher Social Skills Are Better Liars,” Journal of Nonverbal Behavior 23, no. 3 (1999): 237-249.

[iv] Feldman et al., ”Nonverbal Deception Abilities and Adolescents´ Social Competence,” 246 (citing Kashy and De-Paulo, 1996).