Do Liars Care More?

One of the biggest lies we tell is not having favorite kids:

It’s one of the worst-kept secrets of family life that all parents have a preferred son or daughter, and the rules for acknowledging it are the same everywhere: The favored kids recognize their status and keep quiet about it. … The unfavored kids howl about it like wounded cats. And on pain of death, the parents deny it all. …

384 sibling pairs … [were] questioned … and videotaped … as they worked through conflicts. Overall, … 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one. … “The most likely candidate for the mother’s favorite was the firstborn son, and for the father, it was the last-born daughter. ” …

Firstborns have a 3-point IQ advantage over later siblings. … Kids who felt less loved than other siblings were more likely to develop anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. (more)

Interestingly, lying here is seen by many to signal caring:

Not all experts agree on just what the impact of favoritism is, but as a rule, their advice to parents is simple: If you absolutely must have a favorite (and you must), keep it to yourself. Even if your kids see through the ruse, the mere act of trying to maintain it can help them preserve the emotional pretext too — a bit of denial that does little harm. What’s more, the effort it takes to tell a benign lie is in its own way an act of love toward the unfavored child.

Its not clear though how often disfavored kids see self-serving denials as showing care. Do parents who care more about disfavored kids actually lie more than others?

Also, we less resent favoritism to lower status siblings:

Even the most blatant favoritism is easier to take when there’s a defensible reason for it. Perhaps the most extreme example is when one child in the home has special needs. Children with Down syndrome or autism … Kids with physical disabilities … require more time and attention from parents … Talking about the situation openly is the best and most direct way to limit resentment. … “Research suggests that differential treatment may have no negative effects when children understand why.”

Oh kids understand favoritism toward smarter, prettier, stronger siblings – they just hate it more.

I suspect that many commonly told lies are accepted and even encouraged because they are seen by many as showing that liars care. Cynics who tell the truth are, in contrast, described as cold and hostile. A problem, of course, is that we often believe our lies, leading to mistaken inferences and decisions. Which may be why humans often seem so oblivious to “obvious” implications of their “beliefs.”

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  • Ian

    You should really take a look at “Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite” by Robert Kurzban. Social lying is a rather more complicated subject than is represented here. He’s done a TED talk as well I think, so YouTube is good for people who can’t be bothered reading a whole book.

  • Mark M

    I think your conclusions are pretty much on target. Lies are often told to spare feelings, which means the liar cared enough to want to spare feelings.

    I think there’s another aspect to consider when generalizing the rationale for lying beyond the parent/child relationship. My brother once told me, “There’s a difference between being honest and being brutally honest.”

  • I suspect that many commonly told lies are accepted and even encouraged because they are seen by many as showing that liars care.

    I remember being so confused as a child learning that you weren’t supposed to mention that people were fat even if true – ESPECIALLY if true!

    A problem, of course, is that we often believe our lies, leading to mistaken inferences and decisions. Which may be why humans often seem so oblivious to “obvious” implications of their “beliefs.”

    So we should expect to have all kinds of incorrect beliefs specifically when it comes to tabooed topics such as physical beauty, obesity, age, intelligence, erotic love, postpartum disfigurement . . . this list is not difficult to add to. I would say we have a general tendency toward euphemism in a broad sense, not just using euphemistic words, but editing out entire painful concepts and thoughts for politeness’ sake.

    Is it possible to remain polite but avoid being vulnerable to these kinds of errors?

    Does consciousness of the process actually make us any less vulnerable to these errors?

    • I wonder if telling kids “We all know X is true, but we avoid saying X because it will hurt A’s feelings” would be better than just letting kids figure it out (or not) on their own. Why don’t we have a “when to lie” lesson in school like we have a “tying your shoes” lesson?

      • Great questions.

      • We don’t want to formalize lying as a society because not doing so maintains the plausible deniability we want in our polite lies. If our polite lies become common knowledge (in the technical sense), they cease to be communicative, and then some other structure will have to be built up to replace them. in which we will lie, politely, until society formalized the process. We would wind up with a “tact treadmill”.

      • One related piece of evidence: implicit racism (measured by implicit association test (IAT), etc.) doesn’t change during development – it’s stable from age 3 – but self-report of racism decreases with age. It’s interesting that learning politeness does not seem to correlate with changing implicit beliefs. (See the graphic halfway down the page especially.) (Weirdly, gender attitudes exhibit a different pattern!)

        I haven’t been able to find IAT being used on child preference by parents – that would be fascinating! That would allow us to test commenter daedalus2u’s assertion that “It is possible to be a parent and to not have a favorite child.”

      • Wonks Anonymous

        Sister Y, the predictive ability of the IAT is questionable.

      • Yup. So is self-report.

        Banaji refers to “priming, the IAT, startle responses, neuroimaging, ERP and the like” – are any of the other ones any better?

  • If there’s a good way of being explicit in a family about favorite children, what would it be?

    • Jayson Virissimo

      Maybe some of the sting would be softened if each child knew they were the favorite of one parent (which seems to be the typical case anyway).

  • It is possible to be a parent and to not have a favorite child.

    The way I do that is to make my feelings for my child explicitly not contingent on what my child does.

    I appreciate that not all people can do that, that feelings toward others are usually contingent on what those others can do for or against us. I think this is the root of most human problems. People are treated according to a hierarchy of “value”. People in a disfavored category are valued less than people in a favored category.

    This is why there was booing/cheering at the recent GOP debates. Gay people are disfavored. People without health insurance are disfavored. People sentenced to death are disfavored.

    One can have one’s feelings about someone not be contingent on the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their political persuasion, the size of their pocketbook, or in the case of a parent, relative scores on standardized tests.

    The problem one has when one’s feelings about someone are contingent on what they can or can’t do for or against you, is that then if that status changes, the feelings must also change (to remain consistent).

    Of course most people don’t have the capacity to do this. They respected GWB because he was white, president, conservative, and pandered to the wealthy. They don’t respect BHO because he is black, centrist, and does not pander to the wealthy as much.

    I think it is true that people who are willing to lie about their reasons for their stated preferences (or falsely stated lack of preferences) do care more than people who tell the truth about them. Unfortunately “caring more” doesn’t result in more accurate assessments, it probably does result in more self-serving assessments.

    So when people do lie about why they hate Obama, saying it because he was born in Kenya, you can be sure that they do really care about how much they hate Obama, because they are willing to lie about it, even to themselves.

    • Do you think you might be deceiving yourself about controlling your emotions to the extent that you don’t have a favorite child?

      • I don’t think so because I never think about my children that way. I always take great pains to not think about my children that way, to not compare them and to not compare my feelings toward either of them, to never put one child in competition with the other over my feelings.

        My feelings toward my children are very complex and multi-dimensional. I can’t integrate them and come up with a single magnitude for each which can then be compared to produce a ranking. I know it would take a lot of active thinking to accomplish something like this and I deliberately don’t think about that.

        Maybe I can do this because I have Asperger’s and am used to thinking about things instead of feeling about them. Divorcing my feelings from data and from my analysis of that data is critically important in my work and research. Correcting errors in thinking and feeling is something I have done my whole life, it isn’t difficult for me to apply it to my feelings about my children.

        Maybe I am fooling myself, but it is something that I am actively and consciously trying to do; to not rank my feelings toward my children and to not put them in competition with each other. I would do anything and everything within my power for each of them. They are different individuals with different needs, and I would do what ever I can to meet those different needs, but what I would do is not contingent on how I feel about either one.

        The mindset I am trying to use is sort of like the mindset of those who administer a system of justice based on laws need to have, in contrast to a system of justice based on individual whim. In many cases the criminal justice system is based on individual whim of the prosecutors based on their feelings toward the individuals involved, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation; 14th amendment not withstanding. Just the way that the 14th amendment requires equal treatment under law, I require equal treatment by me of my children based on my feelings for them.

        I appreciate that many people can’t do this, and that many don’t even want to try. That is why you have people who believe in nonsense and in self-contradictory idea, not because there is any data or evidence, but simply because they want to believe in nonsense. It is a lot easier to just play “follow the leader” than to think for yourself, so that is what most people do. But when you spend your lifetime playing “follow the leader”, what do you do when you are the leader? Who do you follow then?

  • majus

    We have apparently conflicting goals: “don’t lie”, “don’t cause hurt”. Expressing the goals as rules turns them into straw-men (the rule is a low-fidelity representation of the goal). Rules are easy to poke holes in, and applied literally can guide us to act in ways contrary to our real goals. You say something that you know will cause damage, but justify it as being the right thing to do because it is honest.

    But it’s more complicated still. I’ve seen psychologists doing couples counseling teach that conflict avoidance is a more damaging behavior than actually being open about revealing unpopular opinions. Contrast this with common advice that eliminating negativity is a key to improving relationships.

  • C. Bouzide

    Well… lies. Hm.
    I have been working with the theme of TRUTH this year as an artist and human that walks this earth. In Feb my husband of 26 yrs came forward to tell me of his 11 yrs of cheating with two outside “deep” relationships and casual sex with others in as many years. The TRUTH years ago would have been much better than leading a double, if not a triple life. Not question about it.
    Husband – huge conflict avoider. Me – head on fix it person. Eeeeeesh – we are growing. Neither is the best in all situations that is clear. We are both open to change. Working on acceptance (may never reach forgiveness). Him… wondering what true remorse might look like. Counseling=of course, finally.