September 3, 2004
Children on the witness stand are likely to tell the truth about a parental transgression–even when their parents have asked them to lie–according to new research conducted at the University of California, San Diego, and McGill University and Queens University in Canada. The researchers were interested in trying to determine how accurate and truthful children usually are in courtroom situations, especially in light of the significant increase in child witnesses over the last few years. ”With a substantial number of young children testifying in U.S., Canadian and other courts, we wanted to test the accuracy and veracity of child witnesses. We found that when the children were questioned–as they are in standard courtroom processes–about lying and telling the truth, and when they were also asked to promise to tell the truth, the level of honesty went up.”From UCSD:
Kids On The Witness Stand Are Likely To Tell The Truth — Even If Parents Ask Them To Lie–Say UCSD & Canadian Researchers
Children on the witness stand are likely to tell the truth about a parental transgression–even when their parents have asked them to lie–according to new research conducted at the University of California, San Diego, and McGill University and Queens University in Canada.
Children’s Lie-Telling to Conceal a Parent’s Transgression: Legal Implications, conducted by UCSD psychologist Kang Lee and Victoria Talwar, McGill University, and Nicholas Bala and R.C.L. Lindsay, of Queens University, appears in the August issue of the psychology journal Law and Human Behavior.
The researchers, according to Principal Investigator Lee, were interested in trying to determine how accurate and truthful children usually are in courtroom situations, especially in light of the significant increase in child witnesses over the last few years. ”With a substantial number of young children testifying in U.S., Canadian and other courts, we wanted to test the accuracy and veracity of child witnesses,” said Lee. ”We found that when the children were questioned–as they are in standard courtroom processes–about lying and telling the truth, and when they were also asked to promise to tell the truth, the level of honesty went up.”
While a majority of kids told the truth about their parent’s actions, they tended to do so with greater frequency if there was real possibility that they (the child witness) could be implicated in the behavior in question. When the child was placed beyond blame, however, a significantly larger number of kids were willing to lie to protect their parents.
The study, which involved more than 200 children ranging in age from three to 11, and one parent of each child, focused on two psychology experiments. One experiment involved numerous scenarios in which a parent destroyed a hand puppet with the child present and with the child out of the room. In the second series of experiments, the puppet was destroyed but was clearly out of the child’s reach, therefore eliminating the possibility that the child could be implicated in the action. In all cases, the parent asked the child to lie and to promise not to reveal that the parent had destroyed the puppet.
In a subsequent interview each child was questioned about the chain of events and was specifically asked if their parent destroyed the puppet. When the parent was absent from the room at the time of questioning 80% of the children surveyed told the truth. When the parent was present during the interrogation, 67% of the children told the truth. In the instances where the child was out of the room during the puppet destruction, only 51% reported that their parent was at fault. The children appeared to be more truthful when there was a chance that they (the child) might be blamed.
Subsequently, a second round of interviews was conducted by a second experimenter, simulating a competence examination commonly used in courtroom procedures, in which the child was told a story and asked to evaluate it for its truthfulness or falsity. The child was then asked if they ”know what a promise is” and was urged to tell the truth. Finally, the child was asked the same set of questions as in the first interview, but here the number of children telling the truth increased to 85% when the parent was absent and 96% when the parent was present, but only 60% told the truth when it was clear the child would not be implicated. Concluded Lee, ”These results showed that most children will not lie to protect their parents, even after explicit coaching from them. This appears to be particularly true when there was a possibility that the child could be blamed. Also, children proved more likely to tell the truth in instances where the child was asked explicitly to promise to tell the truth.”
A later, second experiment, using different subjects, was designed to remove the child’s fear of being blamed. In this experiment the puppet was placed high up on a cabinet so the child could not possibly be at fault. Also in the this second experiment, as part of an effort to evaluate the value of the normal courtroom ”competence evaluation procedure,” the children were randomly either given the competency procedure and asked to promise to tell the truth, or just asked a second time what happened.
In this second experiment only 65% of the children without the competency exam and 75% with the exam admitted that their parent had destroyed the puppet. This second experiment replicated the findings of the first, with the majority of children telling the truth about their parent’s transgressions, but it appears that when the children were not themselves implicated in the act, they were more likely to conceal their parents’ action. And there was a significant increase in truth telling when there was a competency exam and when the experiments got the kids to ”promise to tell the truth.”
The researchers concluded that the explicit parental coaching did not succeed in getting the children to conceal the parental transgression, although if the child realized they would not be blamed they were more willing to implicate their parents, many, therefore, turning out to be ”selfish lie-tellers.”
Though the researchers were encouraged that there was substantial child truthfulness in the study, they noted that the present experiment was removed from actual cases of more significant parental transgression. The researchers said ethical considerations prevented more intense parental threats requiring a lie or creation of conditions that would be graver for the perpetrator of an incident. Of greatest importance, however, for the use of children as potential witnesses was that most told the truth even though they were sensitive to their parents’ requests to the contrary. Truth-telling was found to be promoted when the children were questioned about issues surrounding truth and lies, and asking that the truth be told.