Flattery Begins at Four

Illustration: Amanda Duffy

Kids are brutally honest, but society demands white lies as "lubricants" of social interaction. So at one point in their life, they began to lie. But at what age?

Kang Lee at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and Gunyue Fu of Zhejiang Normal University (yes, Normal) did the study:

They asked a group of preschool children ages 3 to 6 to rate drawings by children and adults they knew, as well as strangers. The preschoolers judged the artwork both when the artist was present, and when he or
she was absent. The three-year-olds were completely honest, and remained consistent in their ratings; it didn’t matter who drew it, or whether the person was in the room. Five- and six-year-olds gave more flattering ratings when the artist was in front of them. They flattered both strangers and those they knew (although familiar people got a higher dose of praise). Among the four-year-olds, half the group displayed flattery while the other half did not. This supports the idea that age four is a key transitional period in children’s social understanding of the world.

Now, why do people lie to begin with?

Lee suggests adults flatter for two reasons. It can be to show gratitude for some positive action in the past. As well, when they’re meeting someone for first time – someone who may turn out to be important for their advancement down the road – flattery is also used as an investment for future favourable treatment from the person. “We don’t know which the child is doing,” says Lee. However, the fact that the older children flattered strangers as well as familiar people suggests “they are thinking ahead, they are making these little social investments for future benefits.”

Link - via Collision Detection

basic behaviorisms, I would think, has something to do with it too. along with learning how to lie from the rest of us. also a seperation of adult and child, by forming lie barriers as a security of truth(which is llife/play ect, not war and predujice, ect.
distiguishing differences is a part of lying, and flattery comes from us too, as positive reassurance.
investments for future benefits that allow for self gratifying baths.
lie for love
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The three-year-olds were completely honest???

Bull.... I've seen two-year-olds lie when they thought they were in trouble or they thought they could get another cookie/candy.

Pets, too. Not just our previous cats, but our current bunny can lie like a rug if he thinks he can get another treat out of you.
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A two-year-old lying to get a cookie doesn't map onto art criticism unless the artist has cookies for them. I assume they weren't at a wine and cheese opening :) I mean, this stuff illustrates that there is a developmental gap between "I have learned what you want me to say in exchange for a cookie" and "I have learned that you want me to say 'nice' things about anything connected to you to your face."

I would like to read the study sometime and see if they made a distinction between tact and straight-up lying. You can choose to share the truthful nice reactions you have with an artist or phrase the "negative" ones constructively, without lying. To me, four-year-olds doing that are learning about manners - being socialized - whereas if they are lying about their reactions they are showing that they've found people will not be nice to them if they say something negative - which is a whole other world.
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or its one little building block among many. depending on the child and whatever is distict in development and whatever special point of view. So what leads to a wine and cheese opening shmooze fest is anyone's guess,
the gap that you bring up, oakling, makes me think about social skills in general and the complexity and mundane situations we all go through .
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Couldn't the motivation for their responses be something a little more simple than future social advancement? couldn't it just be that maybe they've gained some empathy and simply don't want to hurt the other person's feelings? Just a thought
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I think Jack is absolutely right. It actually reflects on the researchers that they assumed the kids were making social investments, rather than trying to be thoughtful.
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So we're already thinking about sucking up to our future bosses when we're four? I doubt that. I think it's more likely the first explanation: "It can be to show gratitude for some positive action in the past." Especially since familiar people got more praise.
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A "normal university" is just another name for a college that trains teachers. There are plenty of other schools with the same designation worldwide, probably the best-known of which are the French "Écoles Normales".

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@Gerry: "Bull…. I’ve seen two-year-olds lie when they thought they were in trouble or they thought they could get another cookie/candy."

True, but the intent there is self-interest (to get out of trouble or for "ccokie" gain). The study purports to show that lying in the interest of others (though you can argue that ultimately it's also in the interest of self), begins at four.
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