August 6, 2014

Can kids these days distinguish between lies and mistakes? With a look back at youth disillusionment across the generations

I've been struck several times by how my 6 year-old nephew interprets the errors made by others as lies rather than mistakes.

For example, his friend screams that he hears the ice cream truck. When my nephew races out with some money and there's no ice cream truck music, he gets pissed and says, "He lied!" I was there, and his friend was clearly confused and acted hastily in excitement, rather than playing a trick. I heard his friend accuse him of lying, too, in a similar context. So it's not some flaw unique to my nephew.

If you make a prediction or a plan that doesn't end up taking place, and in a way that makes him upset, he'll accuse you of lying, on the assumption that you had perfect knowledge of the future.

Those are cases of informational or factual errors, but he behaves this way just as well when someone is breaking a rule or norm. At day care a group of kids were playing the board game Sorry, and one girl played as though the rules allowed you to "slide" on your own color, which they do not. She could have been ignorant of the rule, or maybe they play by modified rules at her house. But my nephew accused her of lying.

Lies are errors made with the knowledge that they are errors, while honest mistakes are made with the belief that they are correct. Why can't kids who are already in their early grade school years draw this distinction? I don't recall accusing others of lying on such a regular basis, at such a late age, as kids do today.

My first thought was that kids today are more in the autistic direction than those born from the late 1950s through the early '80s.

One core feature of autism is the inability to take another person's point-of-view, in a purely factual sense. The "false belief task" has a child watch a grown-up and another child playing with a toy. The grown-up puts the toy in one place, which the other child sees. The other child leaves the room, and the grown-up switches the toy to another place. The target child is asked, When the other child comes back into the room, where will he look for the toy?

Before their mind-reading abilities have matured, children say that the other child will look in the second location, when of course he will look in the original spot. The target child cannot take the perspective of the other child, who has incorrect beliefs. He expects the other child to have changed his beliefs in perfect sync with the changes in the state of the world, between the time he originally formed the beliefs and now when he's applying them. Small children cannot appreciate that other people may hold beliefs that are out of touch with recent changes.

So perhaps kids these days are just maturing a lot slower than they used to. They should be able to tell the basic difference between lies and mistakes by age 3 or 4, but it looks like the earliest they'll reach that state is by 7 or 8 — or later still. It could be one of those "early sensitive windows" of development, where lack of early experience results in a failure to develop much at all.

The lack of social interaction here is caused by the general climate of cocooning, and especially the helicopter parents preventing their kids from playing with other kids. Even when they do allow social contact, much of the communication and interaction is mediated through and controlled by the grown-ups. They're simply carrying out the orders of the adult supervisor, rather than figuring out how to behave on their own, with experienced adults serving only to set the broad guidelines and boundaries within which self-directed interactions take place.

It's like the parents doing their kid's math homework for them, so that the kid doesn't learn addition and subtraction. Although unlike arithmetic, basic social skills cannot be picked up at any age. The blank slate view of helicopter parents leads them to believe that developmental delays are just drawing out the inevitable — you can stop having to schedule play-dates when you're 30 — rather than depriving their children of necessary early experience, which will warp their development for good, to a greater or lesser degree.

The other possibility is that kids today are growing up in a climate of increasing competitiveness, status-striving, and dog-eat-dog morals. They might not have a cognitive difficulty in taking the other person's perspective — they may want to assume the worst, to make the other person look bad and demote their status in the zero-sum competition.

Also, if advancing my own awesomeness is the main goal, then when someone else's predictions or plans fall through, hindering my gratification, they must have intended to trip me up. Haters gonna hate.

When can pit the two possibilities against each other by looking at the early Baby Boomers. They grew up in a fairly socially isolated world, especially regarding children playing unsupervised with one another, and having to figure out other people's thoughts rather than have the grown-up supervisor tell them the answer. Yet their formative years in the '50s and '60s also saw the minimum of status-striving and dog-eat-dog morality (although they and the Silents would usher in a decisive break from those ways during the '70s, with the Me Generation).

I don't have a good feel for how they would've interacted in everyday social situations where they had to distinguish lies from mistakes. Watching old episodes of Leave It to Beaver or Dennis the Menace might fill in some gaps there.

But there is plenty of enduring evidence from how they responded to the Vietnam War, which then spread into other areas of public affairs. The general tone among youngish people was that they were being knowingly lied to, not that the officials and lever-pullers were ignorant, clueless, naive, and so forth. "Don't trust anyone over 30" meant that they were in some way out to get you, knowingly misleading you.

Certainly there were plenty of lies going around about the war and the state of things in general. But those were more like attempts to alleviate an acute symptom — some embarrassing or damning event happens, and we've got to cover it up to make things look all hunky-dory. Overall, though, the best and the brightest were true believers that they had all the knowledge they needed, that they were powerful enough to do whatever they wanted, and that blowback could be easily contained. They were full of hubris, not deception, and the youngsters were wrong to accuse them of systematically lying.

On the side of the youngish people, they seemed truly, earnestly mystified that so many errors were being told to them. If they were accusing their elders of lying as part of a dog-eat-dog status contest, I don't think they would have been so genuinely surprised that other people could so firmly hold inaccurate beliefs, just like that 3 year-old can't believe that the other kid is going to look in the original spot for the hidden toy! The reaction would have come off as a cynical, petty campaign to beat their elders with whatever flimsy stick was lying within reach, as we see these days when political party A acts all shocked, shocked! to discover unseemly behavior among party B, and disingenuously vilifies them through the press.

We see an attitude similar to the one of circa 1970 in youngish people's reactions today about the false promises of higher education and student loan debt. It seems to be one of accusing their parents and teachers of having lied to them. "We followed all the rules and advice, yet here we are stuck in a rut. I mean, what the heck, how else do you explain it other than our parents and teachers blatantly lying to us?"

As in the late '60s, young people's accusations of lying don't feel like a petty attempt to slander others in a game of one-upsmanship. They seem genuinely surprised that their elders could so firmly hold a set of false beliefs regarding the risks and rewards of higher ed — beliefs that came from a time when the risks were lower and the rewards higher. This points to a root cause that is more autistic than Machiavellian.

Where does that leave good ol' Generation X? Our disillusionment unfolded much earlier in life, right around puberty, rather than in young adulthood — another sign of how quickly folks used to mature. And we were less likely to accuse our elders of lying to us about the state of the world and how it worked. Rather, when they were committed to a set of false beliefs, we thought that they were clueless, naive, and out of touch, perhaps dangerously so. They grew up in the squeaky-clean 1940s, '50s, and early '60s — not the gritty '70s, '80s, and early '90s. Not only could we take their perspective, we could intuit where their mistaken views of the world came from ("that was then, this is now").

They were making honest mistakes, and however much we felt harmed by those mistakes, we didn't attribute them to malice, which would have required righteous indignation to correct. We just wrote off their presumed wisdom — "You don't have to be old to be wise" — and pragmatically tried to adapt the best we could to the changing ways of the world, relying mostly on our fellow young people, who were not already committed to inaccurate beliefs about how the world works.

Little of this had to do with large-scale political and economic events, by the way. It was mostly about the crime wave and related phenomena — drug use, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and all the other staple topics for "very special episodes" of 1980s television and pop music.

Perhaps there's a difference when young people are faced with a set of mistaken beliefs that their elders hold in the large-scale political-economic realm, as opposed to the on-the-ground social-cultural realm. But the simplest explanation is that in the absence of helicopter parenting, Gen X and the late Boomers had richer social experiences at young ages, allowing the social lobes of their brains to develop early and fully by adolescence.

That not only gave us a more mature mind when it came to taking other people's perspectives, but also when it came to dealing with the false beliefs of others. If you find out they're mistaken, make a note of it, ignore them in that area of life, and move on. Don't get all furious at them as though they were deliberately lying, and don't keep harping resentfully on their wrong-doing. Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.


  1. A.B. Prosper8/6/14, 3:03 PM

    Its not just generational IMO.

    I think part of the issue comes from the fact our is a society awash in mendacity and narcissism. The leadership in particular aren't just making honest mistakes, they are in fact actively lying for gain and this increases the natural traits engendered by social change.

    Basically I suspect that when too many people lie and claim it was a mistake the social milleau changes enough that mistakes are seen as lies and this trickles down even to the young

  2. Regardless, incompetence can be just as damaging as malice, especially when they are sharing their wrong beliefs with others.

  3. Re: autism. I don't know if there are any post congitive dissonance studies of how high AQ scorers reconcile differences between statements made by others and reality.

    I get the impression people with autism tend to have a bias towards believing people are mistaken rather than lying. Generally more of a "Oh, you've made a clear error in argument, let me explain to you in (excruciating) depth, because you obviously you've made a mistake." process than suspicion.

    A bias towards lying seems like a kind of tuned up theory of mind (people focus) that makes up elaborate theories for other people's behaviour, like Borderline Schizophrenia.

    e.g. - "Participants read a series of stories that described a target's ambiguous behavior in response to a specific social situation and later judged whether that act was attributable to the target's internal dispositions or to external situational factors. Neural regions consistently associated with mental state inference-especially, the medial pFC-strongly predicted whether participants later made dispositional attributions. " E.g. an inability to give a correct situational explanation results from over simulating possible mental states relative to the situation (information about the situation allows you to shut down many of those possible mental states as explanations).

    Social isolation could as plausibly lead to hyper mentalising though I suppose.

    I don't know much about Gen X, but they seem to love conspiracy theories even in adulthood? - comparing "levels of conspirational thinking ... the Silent Generaiton, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millenials. Of those four groups, members of Generation X appear to be the conspiratiorially minded. Gen Xers have the highest percentage of people high on the conspiracy dimension and of people both high and medium on the conspiracy dimension".

  4. The "gritty" 80's? I wish I knew what you're talking about. From '83 - '90 there was a long economic boom. Blacks hadn't established their arrogance/entitlement yet. You could walk almost anywhere safely at night. Public employees hadn't become unresponsive kleptocrats yet. Slobbism in personal presentation hadn't taken root
    yet. The most common bumper sticker was "baby on board." Women didn't have tattoos. I realize Times Square was cleaned up in 1994. Is that what you mean? Traditional skid rows?

  5. "I wish I knew what you're talking about."

    the crime wave and related phenomena — drug use, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and all the other staple topics for "very special episodes" of 1980s television and pop music.

  6. "A bias towards lying seems like a kind of tuned up theory of mind (people focus) that makes up elaborate theories for other people's behaviour, like Borderline Schizophrenia."

    Youngsters today don't have elaborate theories, just a blanket statement that you're lying -- for what reason? They can't say exactly. You're just a liar.

    Spergy people are more likely to throw fits and temper-tantrums, and that's how it comes off when youngsters accuse others of lying to them, when it was a mistake / delusion. Remaining bratty and toddler-like due to stunted maturation.

    Late Boomers and X-ers may be more into conspiracy theories on account of their active imaginations. More empathetic people will also tend to believe more in random events, or mass events, having a person-like agent to cause them.

  7. Being a little closer in age to the group under discussion than agnostic, my experience is that the word "lie" is somewhat ambiguous when it comes to the question of intent. When someone unknowingly says something that isn't true, my intuition isn't taking a strong stance one way or the other on whether "lie" is a correct word to describe the situation. If I'm a midpoint between agnostic and his nephew, then an evolving usage of the word "lie" could be part of the explanation.

  8. Youngsters today don't have elaborate theories, just a blanket statement that you're lying -- for what reason? They can't say exactly. You're just a liar.

    For autistic people "Someone was lying" seems like it would be a more elaborate theory than their normal explanation, which would be that you are dumb / wrong or mistaken. Overattributing intention to misleading others seems the kind of thing they probably wouldn't do - it's an activity from overanalysing others' thinking compared to looking at the environment - more what a excessively people obsessed mind would do.

    Spergy people are more likely to throw fits and temper-tantrums

    Yeah, because to them everyone seems dumb, or they can't understand the situation, or they don't consider other's feelings, either tactically or genuinely. Not really because everyone's lying and its so unfair.

    More empathetic people will also tend to believe more in random events, or mass events, having a person-like agent to cause them.

    Extra person-like agents that are actively misleading everyone and deceiving them behind or within governments, rather than those bodies just being mistaken.

  9. In a previous post, "Face to Face" argued that Millenials often qualify their statements with phrases like "Honestly" and "for real" as a indication that they don't trust each other. They assume that their peers are typically going to exaggerate, so they need to emphasize when they're not exaggerating. This seems tied to the fact that Millenials want to hide how reclusive and unsuccessful they are.

    So this is probably another factor tied to small children accusing each other of lying, in addition to having poor empathy. They already have very low trust in their peers.- because they themselves often exaggerate or lie to avoid looking bad, they assume that everyone else is to.

  10. OT for this post, but On-Topic for the blog:

    Things are changing, people are seeing it.


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