I've been a parent for a little over a decade now, and I think I'm getting pretty good at figuring out when kids are fibbing. Between the times I could swear she's snowing me but she's telling the truth and the times I'm buying every word and the whole thing is a scam, I'd say I'm up to 40% accuracy on a good day.
Which means I'm catching up with the general population, according to a study described last week at BPS Research Digest. Researchers at Göteborg University gave thirty children (ages 11-13) a challenge any kid would love: fool the grown-ups. The kids were told to describe two experiences, one that really happened to them and one that didn't. They had to be fast; some had two minutes to make up the story, while the rest had to do it on the spot.
Researchers interviewed the kids, and showed the taped interviews to sixty adult undergraduates, who tried to say which stories were true and which weren't. The grown-ups were terrible. Overall they got 51.5% right, "not better than chance." They might have done better, but the prepared kids dragged the average down. Using strategies like staying calm and adding realistic details, the kids who had two minutes to work on their stories fooled the adults 53.9% of the time.
It's not just kids. We aren't good at knowing when adults are lying to us, either. "It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, young or old; very few people are able reliably to detect deception," writes psychologist Richard Wiseman.
Undergraduates may have looked inept in the Göteborg kids study, but in a 2004 study, Spanish police officers were less accurate than undergraduates at detecting adult deception. Apparently the officers' problem was their "very strong tendency to judge the statements as deceptive." In a 2006 BPS Research Digest guest article, Emma Barrett (more on her below) reports "the usual 50-60 per cent hit rate typically found in deception studies," and notes a study where English police officers did somewhat better than that.
Would that face lie?
Why can't we spot a lie? We're distracted and fooled by practically everything. In a 2005 study, subjects were thrown off by a baby-faced liars (we trust them) but also liars with mature faces (we assume they're knowledgeable). We believe speakers who are confident, so much so that in this 2005 study, subjects "rated false testimonies as significantly more believable than true statements." And we've already talked here about the credibility boost we award to speakers who are beautiful.
Proximity is distracting, too. A different Göteborg study showed that when subjects were personally in the room with a speaker, they were more likely to be fooled than they were when they watched on videotape --even though they thought they were more accurate judges in person. Even camera angle matters. Mock jurors' assessments of whether a video confession is voluntary have been shown to vary depending on the camera's perspective.
It comes down to this: the jury system requires jurors to assess credibility, and like the rest of us, they're not very good at it.
Resources on deception:
There's a whole blog on deception, straightforwardly titled Deception Blog ("collating information about applications of psychological research on deception"). It's great. The Richard Wiseman quote above comes from today's post. The author, Emma Barrett, also writes the very good Psychology and Crime News blog, "a place to collate information of interest in a forensic psychological context."
(Photo by Paolo Perini at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pperinik/171198564/; license details there.)