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Harold KoplewiczBack to OpinionHarold Koplewicz

The boy who cried foul, or lessons in lying from the World Cup

Soccer players — or, as the rest of the world calls them, football players — can be tricky. They sometimes fall and then, with a pained expression on their face and an eye on the referee, they roll around on the ground, face glazed with tears and sweat, pointing a finger at an opposing player. They give every appearance of having been injured, pretend they’re in extraordinary pain, but moments later, after the referee has called a foul, they’re miraculously better.

I’ve always been intrigued by how when soccer players do this, when they cry and moan about imaginary injuries, we say there’s “an art” to what they do, because the best divers, like good liars, are brilliant not only at scheming but also execution, performing. Diving requires opportunity, acting skills, and a willingness to hurl oneself through the air and toward the ground, regardless of whatever real injury might result, right at the moment when a foul will change the game.

To dive, you must be willing to cry wolf. Most children experiment with this — lying — fairly early in their development. Four-year-olds, remarkably, will lie every two hours, and six-year-olds will lie every hour and a half. They lie to avoid punishment and when they feel anxious and insecure. What’s surprising to most parents, however, is that stories about liars facing consequences —whether it’s the boy who cried wolf or a diving World Cup player — do remarkably little to discourage kids from lying on a regular basis. Kids weigh the benefits of lying against the risk of getting caught, and when the benefits look good and the risk seems low, they’re liable to lie again.

I remember well the first time I thought about this in the context of soccer. It was 1989, and Chile, trailing Brazil 1-0 at 69 minutes into a World Cup qualifying game, needed to either force a rematch or accept being eliminated from the World Cup. I watched in awe as the Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas dove into the smoke from a firecracker — a female fan had thrown the explosive onto the field — and then, as the smoke cleared away, wiped streams of blood from his head. Chile initially got what it wanted — an abandonment and call for a rematch — but then video emerged, and Rojas could be seen through the haze of smoke taking a razor blade from his glove and slitting his scalp. Everyone was shocked.

The original boy who cried wolf was motivated by boredom, which may resonate with any child at some time or other, but a diving football player, like Rojas, is driven to win a game in which millions of people are emotionally invested. He soars through the air, lands on the ground, convincingly fakes spasms of pain, and then, so long as no one discovers his antics, he’s rewarded with sympathy as well as a rematch or some other call that changes the game in his favor. That an adult would risk this much to change the outcome of a game seems crazy, and that’s really the only reason diving is so much fun to watch.

It’s the kind of thing we expect from kids. Children and adolescents realize they can be punished for lying, but when the right rewards are in view or they feel trapped, they tend to risk embarrassment and lie anyway. They’re more sensitive to rewards than risks, and while there are biological reasons for this (their brains’ frontal lobes, which control reward prediction, decision-making and risky behaviors, are still developing), a major influence is social: they learn to lie and become better liars from watching older kids and adults do it. They won’t grow out of lying necessarily, but they’ll grow into it if it’s left ignored.

Parents often ask me what they can do to socialize lying out of their children. The first step is to use events, like those from the World Cup, as teachable moments. Parents should consistently highlight and praise acts of honesty and social integrity. Research has shown that children are more likely to tell the truth after hearing a story in which honesty has paid off. Of all the lessons parents may draw from the World Cup, I can think of no greater than the importance of teaching kids the value of fairness and exemplary acts.