Study: Parents worse at telling if their own children are lying

Adults do poorly at judging when children are lying, and parents do even worse at telling if their own children are lying than they do when judging other people’s children, according to a study to be published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

A wealth of psychological research has shown that people are poor lie detectors, performing no better than chance at telling if someone is lying in most situations. Many parents expect that an exception to this rule would be detecting the lies told by their own children. Children are relatively inexperienced liars, and their parents’ long experience should teach them how to tell when they are telling the truth or fibbing. On the other hand, parents may be motivated to believe their children’s statements, partly because they want to think that they have done a good job of instilling honesty in them.

A team of researchers led by Angela Evans, of Brock University, conducted an experiment to determine how parents’ judgments of children’s lies stood up to others’ in terms of accuracy. A sample of 108 children between the ages of 8 and 16 were brought into the laboratory and were told they would be taking a test. They were also told where the answer key was, and were left alone in the room. Slightly more than half of the children peeked at the test answers when given this opportunity.

The researchers asked all the children whether they had peeked, and made video recordings of their responses (50 truthfully denied peeking, and 49 falsely denied peeking, while 9 who truthfully admitted to peeking were excluded from the study). Three groups of adults then rated the videos, judging whether they thought the children were telling the truth or lying. These groups included 80 parents of the children in the study, 72 parents whose children were not in the study, and 79 college students who were not parents. The first group rated only the videos of their own children, while the second and third groups rated 46 videos each.

None of the groups of adults did better than chance at telling whether the children were lying or telling the truth. However, parents made much different judgments about their own children than parents judging others’ children or non-parents. Parents believed their children about 92% of the time, regardless of whether they were truthful or lying, whereas non-parents and parents judging others’ children misjudged both truth and lies roughly equally.

The authors of the study conclude that the closeness of the parent-child bond does not make it easier to judge truthfulness. Instead, parents seem to be biased in favor of their own children’s honesty. Parents may want to keep these findings in mind the next time they catch their child with their hand in the cookie jar.