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Good Liars: Working Memory and the Cherry Tree

As the legend goes, an angry father confronts his son about the damage to a cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie,” young George Washington proudly asserts, “I did cut it with my hatchet.” Washington Senior proceeds to forgive his son, because George’s honesty was more valuable than a thousand trees. This legend has been retold over and over to extol the virtues of honesty and morality. But what if the young George cannot tell a lie because he is a bad liar with a poor working memory?


Before delving into how working memory and lying are related, a quick review of how working memory operates might be helpful. First, working memory is a system that holds information so that it can be processed. For example, during reading, working memory processes the incoming meaning while also maintaining the information already read, adding the newly acquired information to what is already known while also inhibiting unnecessary distractions or irrelevant information. Clearly, working memory juggles several jobs at once and is clearly important in how we operate. But how exactly does working memory function?


working memory 2Working memory has several components that function in concert to hold and manipulate information. Two of the components are called the “slave systems”, or the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad. The visuo-spatial sketchpad is concerned with non—verbal representations of spatial and visual information. Faces, mental rotations, and maps all draw on the visuo-spatial sketchpad to be interpreted. The phonological loop processes verbal information. The central executive coordinates the two slave systems, and monitors the incoming information to decide what to pay attention to and what to inhibit. Finally, the episodic buffer integrates the working memory components and integrates these representations with long-term memory.


So what is the real world importance of working memory capacity? Research has shown that those with higher working memories have better reading comprehension, have higher fluid intelligence, learn faster, are better at inhibiting irrelevant information, and are better at juggling multiple ideas at once (see here and here for interesting additional blog reading). But how does differing working memory capacities play out in social situations? If one is better able to coordinate the incoming stimuli, update memory stores, and recall appropriate information (i.e. have a better working memory), then will one be better at lying? Yes! Deception requires working memory to keep multiple pieces of information straight. But what components of working memory are the most important in lying?


In a recent study by Alloway et al. (2015), the researchers were curious about how working memory plays a role in lying. Specifically, they wanted to investigate which working memory component, the phonological loop or visuo-spatial sketchpad, plays the largest role in the context of lying, or whether the two systems are dissociable and are controlled through the central executive so that both are linked with lie-telling.


To explore these questions, researchers tested 137 children, ages 6 and 7, using a temptation resistance paradigm. This paradigm required children to answer three trivia questions with the answers on the backs of the cards. After asking the third question and preparing for the fourth and last question, the experimenter left the room, telling the control condition that they could look at the card and the experimental condition that they couldn’t peek. After the experimenter came back, she or he asked the final question. Afterwards, the experimenter asked several entrapment questions regarding the answer to the trivia question, attempting to catch the children in a lie. This paradigm measured the children’s ability to maintain consistency in their responses as they continue to tell lies (semantic leakage). The children also took both phonological loop and visuo-spatial measures of working memory.


The results showed that good liars (peekers that did not admit to peeking) had higher overall working memory scores than bad liars. Furthermore, in the condition where the experimenter told the children that they couldn’t peek, the good liars had higher verbal working memory compared with the bad liars. These findings suggest that children’s semantic leakage control (i.e. being a good liar) involves verbal working memory, or the phonological loop, and not the visuo-spatial sketchpad. This makes sense because there is a lot of information juggling while one processes and manipulates information during a lie. Lying takes a lot of effort; one must be aware of several things like inhibiting the truth, activating the lie, making sure everything seems smooth and normal. To be a successful liar, one must have an active phonological loop because most often, lies are in a verbal form, and so rely on verbal working memory.


So instead of being extremely honest, maybe George Washington had a low working memory capacity and was unable to juggle multiple items at once to successfully deceive his father. His phonological loop failed him and he was forced to admit that he could not tell a lie. Lucky for him, his father did not assume that his son may have been lacking in working memory and instead attributed his son’s behavior to an honorable sense of honesty. Maybe, if George had a higher working memory, he would have lied. Maybe a lie would have changed the course of history and we might now all be British otherwise. Who knows? Memory is a powerful force.



Alloway, T. P., McCallum, F., Alloway, R. G., & Hoicka, E. (2015). Liar, liar, working memory on fire: Investigating the role of working memory in childhood verbal deception. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 137, 30-38.

Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K. W., & Spence, J. T. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Baddeley, A .D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G.H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47–89). New York: Academic Press.

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  1. December 10th, 2015 at 19:30 | #1

    I liked this post a lot! I had never really thought about the cognitive processes that go along with lying, or why some people might be better at lying than others. We all have “that friend” or “that family member” who we know just cannot lie… I now know that it could be attributed to low working memory. From there, I began to wonder something:
    You mentioned in your post that lying takes a lot of effort, such that one’s awareness must be high when they are telling a lie. They have to inhibit the truth and activate the lie, and ensure that they do not actually appear to be telling the lie. We have talked a lot in class about attention, and how it is a limited resource such that we cannot possibly pay attention to everything in our environment. We also talked about attentional control and how it is time-consuming and difficult (Posner and Snyder, 1975), and also how there are less attentional resources available for each task when someone is performing more than one task. So, because lying seems to be a controlled process that requires more than one task at a time, I wonder how much attention, and the limits on it, increases or decreases peoples’ ability to lie (in addition to the findings on working memory that are presented in this study). Is it possible that people can become “experts” at lying, such that they can make the controlled processes involved with it more automatic through rehearsal and practice? I would think yes. For example, for the kids who were able to lie and “get away” with it, I would think that they have had more practice with lying and, therefore, it has become less of a controlled process and more of an active one. And the kids who did not lie or were unable to, I wonder if limited practice, and therefore a lack of automatic attention, led to them being bad at it. I think it is interesting to think about how many different cognitive processes could go into one’s ability to tell a lie!
    I also thought a little bit about eyewitness testimony, or court testimonies in general. We have discussed that testimonies are often inaccurate, and yet we depend on them in our court systems. I wonder if one day, witnesses and others who need to testify will have to go through tests of working memory to see if they are good at lying or not… But that’s probably a stretch. Thanks for posting!

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