The Truth About Lying: A Behavioral Perspective


Guest Blog: Mariéle Cortez, Ph.D.

Federal University of São Carlos (Brazil)

Acknowledgement: Thank you to Mirela Cengher for her feedback on an earlier draft of this blog post.

Dr. Mariéle Cortez is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Federal University of São Carlos (Brazil) and a research member of the National Institute of Science and Technology on Behavior, Cognition and Teaching. She is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Brazilian Journal of Behavior Analysis (BJBA). Dr. Cortez’s research focuses on the study of verbal behavior with a special interest in evaluating the efficacy of a variety of procedures to teach language to children with or without autism and investigating environmental variables that affect the accuracy of reporting past events, using single-subject designs.



Liar, Liar…

The character Pinocchio is perhaps one of the most famous liars among all generations. In Walt Disney’s film, adapted from Carlo Collodi’s text “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” every time Pinocchio, a wooden puppet brought to life, lies, his nose grows. At one point, his nose grew so long that it wouldn’t fit through the door.

Image by Santiago from Pixabay

Traditionally, lying has been addressed by various psychological approaches and, also, by common sense as a problem behavior, a character flaw, or a personality trait. For example, a child who lies about a low grade on a test is labeled a liar and may raise concerns among caregivers that they will exhibit more serious antisocial behaviors during adolescence. Some researchers outside behavior analysis have defined lying as a “misrepresentation with the intent to deceive” or a “verbal statement intended to deceive” (e.g., Stouthhamer-Loeber, 1986). Behavior analysts might ask: what does “intent to deceive” mean? How can we observe and measure “intent to deceive”?

Lying is Verbal Behavior

From a behavioral perspective, lying can be understood as a verbal behavior, that is, an operant behavior reinforced through the mediation of other person. In this sense, the controlling variables or, in other words, the causes of the behavior, are the external conditions of which behavior is a function. Considering Skinner’s (1957) verbal operants classification, a lie can be considered a response with the form of a tact (or label) but with the function of a mand (or request). This means that the response, instead of describing a previous event, is influenced by motivating variables, for example, gaining something or removing some aversive stimulation. Imagine the following scene: John, a young boy, is playing ball with Erik, his younger brother, and breaks their mother’s favorite vase. A few minutes later, she arrives home from work, sees the broken vase, and asks, “John, who broke my vase?” Immediately, he says, “It was Erik!” John’s verbal response seems to describe the past event; however, in this particularly case, his response is incompatible with what actually happened. John’s verbal response was likely emitted to avoid some form of punishment (e.g., verbal reprimands, loss of reinforcers, etc.).

From this perspective, we may consider lies or dishonest reports as verbal responses that lack correspondence with the stimulating environment. These behaviors may be controlled by conditions that affect stimulus control such as (1) special measures of generalized reinforcement (e.g., a fisherman who receives attention and admiration when reporting catching a big fish); (2) specific  positive reinforcers, (e.g., a little boy receives a coin from his grandmother after saying he lost his) or, (3) avoidance or escape from aversive consequences, (e.g., a child says they got a higher grade than they actually did and, by doing so, avoids some sort of punishment).

What Do the Data Say?

In the field of behavior analysis, research on do-say correspondence has investigated the role of specific conditions under which reports about the past may be accurate or inaccurate (Lloyd, 2002). The positive relation between past and present behavior, whether verbal or not, has been labeled correspondence (da Silva & Lattal, 2013). We refer to do-say correspondence when individuals say or accurately report what they have done.

Some previous studies in this area of investigation have shown that when children are requested to report on their performance (especially in academic tasks), they tend to lie about their errors. This may occur because children have a history of punishment for reporting errors in an academic context, or because reporting errors may have never been correlated with reinforcement or approval (Cortez et al., 2014; Domeniconi et al., 2014). Similarly, lying in a game context may be related to its competitive nature and its intrinsic punishment arrangements such as losses of points, energy, or “lives” contingent upon poor performances (Cortez et al., 2014). In this way, losing in a game may function as a motivating variable that increases the probability of lying about their performance to remove aversive stimulation or gain attention from others.

Image by cromaconceptovisual from Pixabay

Games are promising settings for the experimental study of honest and dishonest reports because they may establish winning as a powerful positive reinforcer. When dishonest reporting (i.e., lying) increases the probability of winning, we can experimentally study variables that influence the probability of inaccurate reporting. My research lab published a recent study (Cortez et al., 2022) where we evaluated audience control over children’s lies (dishonest reports) using a computerized game. Four typically developing children played a computer game in which they had to shoot a target and then report on their performance. The experimenters manipulated the percentage of errors by programming the percentage of easy and difficult trials for each session. “Easy” were those that would guarantee a ‘hit’ while “difficult” were those that the child would not be able to hit the target. The difficulty was manipulated by increasing the number of obstacles, the distance between the target and the shooter, and the number, size, and speed of the targets.

In baseline, we assessed the accuracy of each child’s reporting in the absence of an experimenter. During the audience condition, an adult was present in the room and observed the child during the task. Children reported honestly 100% of the time during all experimental conditions when they hit the target. What about when they missed? During baseline, when there was no audience present, honest reporting decreased significantly (i.e., children started lying at high levels!) Then, when an adult was introduced during the task completion, honest reporting increased to 100% for all participants. Using a reversal design, we replicated these patterns of responding across conditions and participants.

Image created by the author.

So, for all participants in this study, the presence of an adult led to an immediate increase in accurate reports; that is, participants immediately ceased lying about their performance during the game. Interestingly, the adult never provided contingent differential consequences (e.g., praise, feedback, or reprimands of any kind) for performance in the game or the child’s verbal reports. So, why did we think their presence influenced participant reporting patterns?

The Impact of Learning History on Lying

The effects of an audience on verbal reports by children could be attributed to pre-experimental histories. That is, considering that caregivers may typically view lying as unacceptance and problematic behavior, we can safely assume that children, including the participants in our study, experienced some form of reinforcement for honest reporting and punishment for lying (i.e., timeout, removing privileges, etc.) delivered by an adult (Cortez et al., 2022). The application of a single-case design helps to exemplify how the presence or absence of an environmental variable can lead to different response patterns (telling the truth or telling a lie) within the same individual.

Now, returning to our initial questions “What does intent to deceive mean?” and “How can we observe and measure intent to deceive?” Behavior analysts would interpret intention as “an indirect way of referring to the consequences responsible for the intentional behavior” (Lanza et al., 1982, p. 202). In that sense, when talking about lying from a behavioral perspective, don’t forget to take into consideration Skinner’s words:

The practice of looking inside the organism for an explanation of behavior has tended to obscure the variables which are immediately available for scientific analysis. These variables lie outside the organism, in its immediate environment and in its environmental history. (…) These independent variables are of many sorts and their relation to behavior are often subtle and complex, but we cannot hope to give an adequate account of behavior without analyzing them. (Skinner, 1953, p.31)

Despite its relevance, this topic has been underrepresented in the behavior-analytic field. The studies published so far, however, have attested to the verbal behavior account as productive and conceptually appropriate for understanding the phenomenon. So, I would like to end this blog with a call for researchers to systematically investigate the variables and the procedures that may lead to reliable reports of past events.



Cortez, M. D., de Rose, J. C., & Miguel, C. F. (2014). The role of correspondence training on children’s self-report accuracy across tasks. The Psychological Record, 64(3), 393–402.

Cortez, M. D., Mazzoca, R. H., Donaris, D. F., Oliveira, R. P., & Miguel, C. F. (2022). Audience control over children’s honest report. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 38, 139-156.

da Silva, S. P., & Lattal, K. A. (2010). Why pigeons say what they do: Reinforcer magnitude and response requirement effects on say responding in say-do correspondence. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 93(3), 395–413. https:// doi. org/ 10. 1901/ jeab. 2010. 93- 395

Domeniconi, C., de Rose, J. C., & Perez, W. F. (2014). Effects of correspondence training on self-reports of errors during a reading task. The Psychological Record, 64(3), 381–391.

Lanza, R. P., Starr, J., & Skinner, B. F. (1982). “Lying” in the pigeon. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 38(2), 201-203.

Lloyd, K. E. (2002). A review of correspondence training: Suggestion for a revival. The Behavior Analyst, 25(1), 57–73. 10.1007/BF033 92045

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Free Press.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Stouthamer-Loeber, M. (1986). Lying as a problem behavior in children: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 6(4), 267-289.