When Children Lie
How effective are we in detecting whether a child is lying or not?
Posted February 10, 2017
"Falsehood is easy, truth so difficult." — George Eliot
How confident are you that you can tell when a child is lying? What if it was one of your own children?
Though every parent deals with this scenario at some point, the question of whether or not a child is telling the truth often comes up in many different settings, whether in schools, in court, or in juvenile detention centers. It's a question that trial judges, teachers, psychologists, police officers, and family case workers are expected to answer on a regular basis. But how effective are these supposedly trained professionals in finding the truth?
While studies have shown that children can begin using deliberate deception as young as age 3, the ability to recognize that a child is lying or evading the truth is not as easy as you might think. Much like research looking at how well people can detect lying in adults, most people tend to view themselves as being relatively good at catching lying and often depend on certain cues to decide whether someone is lying or not. These cues can include: inability to meet the questioner's eyes, fidgeting, nervousness, difficulty speaking, or facial expressions reflecting the fear that can lead to lying. No matter how confident people may be about whether these cues can help identify lying, their actual accuracy in catching liars is rarely much higher than chance. Even for individuals with professional training, such as teachers, psychologists, or child protection workers, the actual track record for detecting deception is far from encouraging.
In studying lying behavior in children, researchers have found that even young children can manage certain kinds of lies (such as denying that a certain event took place) though they are especially prone to "leakage," i.e., verbal or non-verbal cues suggesting that they are not being truthful. As children become more mature, however, their ability to carry off a convincing lie and control leakage becomes much greater. They also become better at elaborating on earlier lies by providing new details to make the original lie seem more plausible. And given the importance of child testimony in forensic cases, especially when child physical or sexual abuse is suspected, the potential role of adult "coaching" of children who are encouraged to distort the truth has become the focus of numerous studies over the past 20 years.
A new review article published in the journal Law and Human Behavior examines recent research into how effective adults are in detecting lying in children. Nicholas Scurich of the University of California at Irvine and a team of fellow researchers combined the data from 45 experiments involving 7893 adult judges and 1858 children. In all of these experiments, adult judges were shown videotaped statements of children and were asked to decide whether they were making a factual or a dishonest statement. While most of the adults had no formal training in detecting lies in children, 12 of the experiments specifically involved trained professionals such as teachers, social workers, police officers, psychologists, and other justice system professionals.
The type of lie being used in the experiments fell into three categories:
- Explicit coaching, in which an adult provides specific details for a child to report as truth (often in the form of a story).
- Implicit coaching, in which an adult provides a number of story details which a child could use to create a plausible story.
- Self-generated lying, in which a child is enticed into lying about a specific transgression or something they witnessed. One of the most common research paradigms of this type involves leaving a child alone in a room with an exciting new toy placed behind them at which the child is told not to peek. On returning to the room, the experimenter then asks whether the child peeked or not. Most children are unable to resist the temptation to peek and often lie as a result. In some experiments, children are also asked to guess the name of the toy. How children respond to questioning about whether they peeked are recorded on videotape so that adult participants can make their own judgment about whether the child was lying or not.
Across all studies, the overall accuracy rate—whether or not adults could tell whether a child was lying—was about 54 percent, or just slightly better than chance. This was almost identical to studies looking at how accurate adults were in detecting deception in other adults.
There also didn't seem to be any significant difference in terms of the type of lie involved. In other words, adults didn't seem to have any better success in telling whether a child had been coached to lie than if the child had come up with the lie spontaneously. Though professionals did slightly better than untrained adults in terms of distinguishing between truth and lying, the difference wasn't that large—56 percent for professionals vs 54 percent for non-professionals.
Adults tended to be most accurate in detecting lying in very young children and least accurate in detecting lying in older children. Another consistent finding in the experiments was that there was little real relationship between how confident adults were in their judgment that a child was lying and whether or not that judgment was correct. There was a slight positive correlation (0.068), but it didn't seem to have any practical significance.
Since most of these studies dealt with asking children simple yes/no questions, and brief interviews of less than a minute, more research is likely needed to explore more effective ways of identifying whether children are telling the truth. Research also needs to examine what motivates children to lie, how techniques such as rapport building and reassurance can encourage children to tell the truth when they might otherwise want to lie to escape punishment, and how language and behavior cues can provide valuable clues on whether they are telling the truth.
In a real sense, the way adults handle the question of whether a child is lying or not can often influence how willing children are to rely on deception in future, even after they grow into adults. Children are also keen observers of human nature. This means that their attitudes toward lying are frequently shaped by what they see adults or older children say or do, whether we want them to or not.
All too frequently, the roots of deception go back further than we are willing to admit.
Gongola, J., Scurich, N., & Quas, J. A. (2017). Detecting deception in children: A meta-analysis. Law and Human Behavior, 41(1), 44-54.