Detecting Deception Close to Home
Parents and really anyone who works with kids can attest to many children’s tendency to lie.
While these might take the form of minor fibs of who hit whom, and that sort of common deception, it is not just our anecdotal impression that children are often dishonest. As Dr. Wendy Patrick explains, there is a significant amount of evidence showing that children are quite likely to practice deception. The upside to this is that childhood behavior serves as a great case study for understanding human deception practices.
For instance, Dr. Patrick cites a 2011 study which found that, while younger children lie frequently, dishonesty decreases as they grow towards middle adolescence. The authors speculated that this may be due to increased moral awareness or from a better understanding of the possible consequences of being caught.
Another similar 2016 study concluded that children do not just lie randomly but will select various forms of deception based on perceived social advantage. This conclusion led the authors to suggest that as children age, they begin to use more socially acceptable methods of deception, like white lies.
Perhaps most interesting is that this 2016 study also found that children with greater social skills tended to lie more. This is definitely in line with earlier research that explored a correlation between popularity and deception amongst teenagers.
In a 1999 study, for example, Dr. Robert Feldman interviewed a group of 11 to 16 year olds. While older children might lie less frequently, he found that they are better at it, both controlling nonverbal behavior and better verbalizing their fibs. He also found that more socially competent or popular children were better at lying.
Dr. Feldman concluded “convincing lying is actually associated with good social skills. It takes social skills to be able to control your words as well as what you say non-verbally.”
But how does all of this impact our relationships with children? Does monitoring childhood behavior make us better lie detectors?
Dr. Patrick contends that, while we may develop better skills at catching our kids in lies, these skills may be limited to those individuals, and our children develop correspondingly better abilities for telling us lies.
When we get good at detecting lies in certain children, it is not necessarily because we have unlocked universal skills of lie detection, but because we are better at comparing their mannerisms against possible divergent behavior. For example, a child that always makes eye contact gives themselves away when they fail to meet our gaze, but another child may simply be too shy to maintain similar levels of eye contact.
Moreover, while we can practice lie detection by analyzing divergent behavior, our children also monitor our behavior for similar deviations. In their case, they track signs of distrust or suspicion, learning what nonverbal behavior is leading to their possible detection and adjusting behavior in response.
While our social interactions may be poor guides for effective lie detection, there are universal behaviors and expressions that give away deception.