Adults are unable to tell when children are lying

With their wide eyes and innocent hearts, you might think it’s easy to tell when a child is lying. Oh no it isn’t. Not according to Leif Stromwall and colleagues, who found adults were useless at detecting when children were lying.

Thirty children aged between 11 and 13 were told they were going to be interviewed about one event that had really happened to them, and about another that they’d never experienced (an earlier questionnaire identified which life experiences the children had actually had). The children’s task was to talk about both events as if they had experienced them both.

So next the children were interviewed about two such experiences (e.g. the time they were bitten by a dog, or the time they found a dead bird) by one of three female researchers who were blind to which experiences the children had and had not really experienced. Half the children were given two minutes to prepare for talking about the experience they’d never had, the others had to make up their account on the spot.

The children’s parts in the interviews were video-taped and played to 60 undergrads (average age 26 years) whose task was to identify which accounts were truthful and which were fabricated. Overall, the undergrads were correct 51.5 per cent of the time – no better than chance. They were slightly better at spotting the unprepared made up accounts, identifying 55.6 per cent of these.

It’s no wonder the undergrads were so poor at spotting the children’s lies – the children seemed to anticipate their lie-detection strategies. For example, the most commonly used cue the undergrads said they looked for was a lack of detail in the children’s accounts, but meanwhile the children’s most commonly cited strategy for appearing convincing was to add detail to their accounts by drawing on information they knew about from other people’s experiences. The undergrads also said they had looked for signs of nerves, while the children said they had tried to stay calm.

Children are often witnesses in criminal cases so these findings have serious, practical implications. “It should be acknowledged that detecting deception in children is a difficult task, perhaps as difficult as detecting adults’ lies”, the researchers said.

Stromwall, L.A., Granhag, P.A. & Landstrom, S. (2007). Children’s prepared and unprepared lies: Can adults see through their strategies? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21, 457-471.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

2 thoughts on “Adults are unable to tell when children are lying”

  1. This research is a poor reflection of how children might ‘lie’ in real life. In this research they were instructed by adults to ‘lie’ and they complied so there was no fear of being found out and facing possible negative consequences. These children were guilt free it would seem. I suggest that if a child with a guilty conscience were lying they may well be more readily detected. This research reveals nothing of interest to me as a child psychologist – except that laboratory research is limited in the validity of its findings.

  2. Good point, and to be fair to the researchers, it’s one that they make themselves: “it would be interesting to investigate adults’ accuracy in detecting messages from children more nervous than in the present study; this however demands more pressure put on the children, which would be questionable from an ethical viewpoint”.

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