Adults easily fooled by children's false denials

August 17, 2008

Adults are easily fooled when a child denies that an actual event took place, but do somewhat better at detecting when a child makes up information about something that never happened, according to new research from the University of California, Davis. The research, which has important implications for forensic child sexual abuse evaluations, will be presented Sunday, Aug. 17, at the annual meeting of the American Psychology Association in Boston.

"The large number of children coming into contact with the legal system – mostly as a result of abuse cases – has motivated intense scientific effort to understand children's true and false reports," said UC Davis psychology professor and study author Gail S. Goodman. "The seriousness of abuse charges and the frequency with which children's testimony provides central prosecutorial evidence makes children's eyewitness memory abilities important considerations. Arguably even more important, however, are adults' abilities to evaluate children's reports."

In an effort to determine if adults can discern children's true from false reports, Goodman and her co-investigators asked more than 100 adults to view videotapes of 3- and 5-year-olds being interviewed about "true" and "false" events. For true events, the children either accurately confirmed that the event had occurred or inaccurately denied that it had happened. For "false" events – ones that the children had not experienced – they either truthfully denied having experienced them or falsely reported that they had occurred.

Afterward, the adults were asked to evaluate each child's veracity.

The adults were relatively good at detecting accounts of events that never happened. But the adults were apt to mistakenly believe children's denials of actual events.

"The findings suggest that adults are better at detecting false reports than they are at detecting false denials," Goodman said. "While accurately detecting false reports protects innocent people from false allegations, the failure to detect false denials could mean that adults fail to protect children who falsely deny actual victimization."

Source: University of California - Davis

Explore further: Research suggests that children's memory may be more reliable than adults' in court cases

Related Stories

Now we know why it's so hard to deceive children

September 2, 2014

Daily interactions require bargaining, be it for food, money or even making plans. These situations inevitably lead to a conflict of interest as both parties seek to maximise their gains. To deal with them, we need to understand ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 17, 2008
There are billions of dollars at stake for the sex slave industry to make sure that the process of training their future employees remains intact.
not rated yet Aug 17, 2008
^^rofl conspiracy theory
not rated yet Aug 17, 2008
ditch the conspiracy theory, but the gist of that first comment strikes near to a truth:
The stakes for *the individual molester* are sky-high.
THAT is what makes 'em push to make certain that the molested "eat the damage", instead of letting the molesters be seen/caught.

Try spending a few decades fighting your way into the wholeness that people are *supposed* to have formed as children: maybe you'll develop a bit of commitment against molesters, mr makotech222.

not rated yet Aug 18, 2008
This makes intuitive sense. Psychologically and practically, it is far easier to deny something than to pretend something.

Why? Because, in denying something you do not need to furnish the denial with embellishments or details which can be cross checked for inconsistency. Whereas, when pretending something, you have to be ready to defend it with potentially verifiable details. Even if the intended "target of deception" is unlikely to check the details, the storyteller is much more likely to give micro or macro signals of "deception stress" than someone who simply denies an event and can hide behind a barrier of simulated ignorance.

The exception to the simple denial escape route is when the denial is based on a false alibi, in which case, of course, the deceiver is now forced to move from simple denial to creation of false facts which are more easily detected.

Add to that our tendency to want to give people the benfit of the doubt when they deny something
a) because otherwise we are immediately in a confrontational situation and
b) because challenging a denial implies a considerable amount of effort on the part of the challenger
and it is easy to see why we might be tempted to play along with denials.

In contrast, when we're being spun an obviously implausible yarn, it requires effort on our part to suppress our incredulity. Only if we are facing bullies bigger than we can handle (like the Police, Media, Church or State) does it make sense to remain reticent in the face of invention. If its "just" a child trying to pull the wool over our eyes, the challenge is seen to be quite trivial, so we're more prepared to do it.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.