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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Detecting Deception in Children: A Meta-Analysis

  • Author(s): Gongola, Jennifer
  • Advisor(s): Scurich, Nicholas
  • et al.

Although research consistently reveals that children as young as three can use deception and will take steps to obscure truth, research concerning how well others detect children’s deceptive efforts remains unclear. Yet, adults regularly assess whether children are telling the truth in a variety of contexts, including school, home, and legal settings, particularly in investigations of maltreatment. We conducted a meta-analysis to synthesize extant research concerning adults’ ability to detect deceptive statements produced by children. We included 45 experiments involving 7,893 adult judges and 1,858 children. Overall, adults could accurately discriminate truths/lies at an average rate of 54.3%, which is significantly above chance levels. The average rate at which true statements were correctly classified as honest was higher (59.7%), while the rate at which false statements were classified as dishonest was at chance (49.4%). A small positive correlation emerged between judgment confidence and judgment accuracy. Professionals (e.g., social workers; police officers) slightly outperformed laypersons (e.g., college undergraduates). Finally, exploratory analyses revealed that the child’s age did not affect the rate at which adults could discriminate truths/lies but it was trending in the expected developmental direction (i.e., adults were most accurate when judging younger children).

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