Professor Gingo Studies the Psychology of Lying

If you happen to take a course with Professor Matthew Gingo, you might want to avoid fabricating excuses for late assignments; Gingo knows all about lying. This is because he studies deception through the lens of social and moral development – in other words, when children choose to lie and how they justify their lies.

“My research program focuses on children’s lying, particularly their judgments about when lying is all right,” he said. “They get lots of messages about not lying, but we also know that lying is pretty prevalent in our society. Somewhere along the line, children learn that it’s alright to lie in certain circumstances, it’s not alright to lie in others. Learning to delineate between the two is an interesting developmental process.”

His research is conducted at the Elisabeth Amen Nursery School, Wheaton’s own on-campus laboratory preschool that has been utilized in the study of child development since 1931, as well as elementary and middle schools in the local school system with the assistance of Wheaton students. For two years, Gingo and his team of students have been observing and conducting interviews with children. Their work has yielded a paper on how children reason about lying and how this changes as they develop, co-authored by Gingo and Wheaton seniors Samuel Sproule and Brittany Burke. They will be presenting this paper at the international American Psychological Association conference in Denver, Colorado in August.

Of his collaboration with Wheaton students, he said, “The collaboration is really beneficial for me as a researcher. They do good work. Wheaton students in general are excited to contribute to real research, to answer real problems, not just to be a problem solver in a class format but to be a problem poser and then to chase those answers. That’s been exciting for me to watch. We’re both getting a lot out of it.”

In his research, he has found that children lying often exhibits “a sense of moral resistance” to authority figures, namely adults, in their lives who may not always tell them to do good things. In this way, he said they “level the playing field with the authority figure, and that’s a pretty advanced sort of cognition…. The research can really point us in the direction of how children are thinking about social issues that are worth lying about.”

As an Assistant Professor of Psychology, Gingo has also taught a first-year seminar on the subject of lying – though rather than children, the focus was on leaders – called Cognition in the Wild: The Psychology of Bullsh*t, and Other Deceptive Tactics for Future Senators and CEOs, in addition to other developmental psychology courses.