Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Causal indicators for assessing the truthfulness of child speech in forensic interviews”, by Durante, Z.; Ardulov, V.; Kumar, M.; Gongola, J.; Lyon, T. and Narayanan, S. (2022), in which authors carry out a study to identify any factor that is relevant to discern between true and false declarations when it’s about forensic interviews to children.
In other articles we have seen how interviews are carried out to obtain testimony in controlled settings when it comes to legal proceedings and investigations involving children who may have been victims or witnesses of a crime.
The child is in a stage of human life in which he/she is especially vulnerable, but, in addition, he/she can be influenced more easily, even trained or forced to admit or omit false information.
That is, the same developmental attributes that make children more vulnerable also make their testimony susceptible to manipulation.
To address these issues, legal experts have developed a basic framework for properly conducting interviews, which should be carried out by professionals trained in the field.
The process begins with relationship building, where innocent open questions predominate to help put the child at ease. Afterwards, the interviewer moves on to a somewhat more critical part, during which she obtains memories, directing questions, also open, towards the topic of interest.
Because of all that is at stake, legal experts and psychologists are dedicated to finding factors that indicate whether a child is prepared to disclose information and whether the information disclosed by the child is true or false.
A meta-analysis of studies conducted a few years ago demonstrates the ability of adults to detect children’s lies, with an overall accuracy rate of 54%, which only increased to 59% when trained people were asked. These are not very high percentages.
This is thought to happen because adults tend to have a bias towards believing that a child’s statement is always true.
The hypothesis underlying the authors’ study is that the way children adapt their behavior in response to an interviewer’s behavior, is a more informative sign of deception than the behavior itself.
To combat the difficulties in discerning between truth and deceit in an interview with children, the protocols are administered by a trained professional to obtain reliable testimonies. These interviews are designed to minimize secondary victimization and maximize the retrieval of valuable information without coercion or leading questions.
When that first contact is established, the interviewer asks about innocuous topics so that the child feels comfortable talking; then there will be questions that relate directly to the investigation, without pressuring the child to reveal specific details.
Deception detection studies have been largely limited to adult subjects, using video, audio, or text. Previous work in this area with children is usually done on linguistic characteristics of the interview.
Rather, this article uses acoustic features and considers the child’s coordination and behavior in terms of the interviewer’s, to better understand the child’s dynamics and personality in the interview.
To do this, approximately 200 interviews were conducted, each one with a child, conducted by two experienced interviewers.
The session begins with the child and one of the interviewers, in a room full of toys. The interviewer begins to engage with the child, but one of the toys breaks and a transgression happens. This interviewer tells the child that a different interviewer will come in to ask him/her some questions, and adds that he/she should not say anything about the broken toy to avoid getting into trouble.
The second interviewer follows the basic protocol, first building a relationship of trust with the child and then talking to him/her about the toy so that he/she tells him what has happened to it.
It seems that the best predictor of whether or not a child is telling the truth is his/her level of imagination. There is a very important relationship between children’s and interviewers’ use of vivid language that evokes clear mental images.
Children who plan to omit that an occurred transgression choose their language more carefully, severely that of the interviewer. Therefore, the child becomes more or less vague in his/her descriptions, depending on the level of specificity the interviewer is using.
In contrast, if a boy/girl is honest, he/she will not modify his/her behavior based on the interviewer’s discourse.
This relationship suggests that interview protocols require interviewers to modulate imaginative levels in their language, in order to more reliably track and differentiate between true and false testimonies.
In the future, dynamic systems models that incorporate the interaction of the speaker and the child’s behavior may provide more information and improve accuracy.
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I wrote my dissertation on The Use of Videotape for Studying Nonverbal Communication in Social Settings. It was a preliminary study and now social settings are acceptable places for study compared to past restrictions.
I plan to refer my students to your blogs.