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The Effect Of Coaching And Cognitive Load On Children’s Lying Behavior

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The purpose of studying children’s lying behavior is to give valid reasons on why children begin to lie early in life in order to conceal their wrongdoing. However, at many times children are coached to lie and it is harder to detect the lie when the child is able to conceal transgression and have good semantic leakage. We will examine and predict the effect of coaching lies and the cognitive load of children when they lie. Children (N=240; 3-8 years old) will see a researcher break a toy and steal a piece of the broken toy, and the child will be requested to keep this as a secret. During the experiment, the children will randomly be assigned to three coaching conditions (No coaching, minimal coaching, extensive coaching). Then, children will be questioned about the event in three different question including (open-ended, chronological order, reverse order.) It is predicted that increased cognitive load on children will give them harder time concealing their lies when they are asked to examine the experiment backwards.


Recently, the research on the behaviour of children’s lying has been one of the main focus of forensic and legal psychology that studies children’s testimony at court. For many years, people questioned about the credibility of children’s testimonies. Children testimonies are less credible than adult testimonies because children are more vulnerable to coached lies. (Talwar, Lee, Bala, & Lindsay, 2006) Since children have harder time maintaining their lies (Talwar et al., 2006), we examine how coaching effects the ability of children in keeping the lie as a secret and maintaining that lie during more extensive interviews. Some studies have found that children lie for the benefit of others and assessing trustworthiness and moral approval is not necessary for the trust to form. (Fu, Heyman, Chen, Liu, Lee, 2015) It is also noted that coaching does influence children on maintenance and concealment of their truth and false information. (Vrij, Akehurst, Soukara, & Bull, 2004)

Nevertheless, the relationship between cognitive factors and children’s response to coaching are still very uncertain. Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort used during information-processing. (Saykaly, Crossman, Morris, & Talwar, 2016) In order to do research about the coaching and cognitive load effect towards children, my study uses different question types to study the impact of cognitive load on children using different coaching tactics.

The difference in age also impacts the secret keeping behavior of the children. We also see that age matters when children’s lie. The older kids generally felt more guilt for lying than those who are younger children. One research shows that older children are less likely to reveal a transgression. (Lyon, Ahern, Malloy, & Quas, 2010) On the other hand, another research suggests that younger children are less likely to comment on the gains of the transgressor even if that means it makes the victim feel upset. (Smith, Rizzo, 2017, pg.114) Younger children also tend to less likely disobey the request of keeping secrets. (Laupa, Turiel, Cowan, 1995) The difference in response due to age in concealing transgression will be examined through increase in cognitive loads with different questions in different interview environment.

The first research question that this study will examine is: Do different amounts of coaching by instigators make difference in lie telling behaviour of children? We hypnotized that most of the child participant would keep an event as a secret when they received minimal to extensive coaching compared to no coaching. (Fogliati, Bussey, 2015) Children were better able to conceal their transgression because they had better sematic leakage control after the coaching. We also hypothesized that children will keep someone else’s transgression as a secret when there is heavier coaching because increased coaching reduces the information processing demands due to the increased practice time for rehearsing the false report. (Talwar, Yachison, Leduc, Nagar, 2018) It is also evident that younger children are more easily detected in lying which leads them to revealing transgressions whereas older children were better at maintaining their lies. (Talwar et al., 2018)

The second question this study will evaluate is: how does the impact of the interviewer change the behaviour of children’s lie regarding their cognitive load and working memory? We hypothesize that children will have harder time recalling the event when the cognitive load is increased such as doing a chronological and reverse order recall. (Saykaly et al., 2016) It is also noted that “younger children have more positive feelings with both non-disclosure of and outright lying about the misdeed compared with the older children.” (Smith, Rizzo, 2017, pg.124) This means that younger children feel less guilty about lying compared to older children because they are still developing their morality whereas older children have already formed the morality that lying could affect people negatively.



For this research, there are 240 children participants (range=3-8 years, 120 boys, 120 girls) in this study that that were recruited from U of T child care Centre and a local kindergarten in downtown Toronto. We would want to conduct this research in the field such as kindergarten or daycare because children are considered to be around 3 to 8-year-old and studies show that moral and understanding of lying starts to show around that age. (Talwar, Lee, 2008) Children who are able to communicate with the interviewer and whoever that shows interest towards the aligned toys is also eligible to the study as well. The economic status and ethnic background will not be examined. 80 children for each category will be randomly assigned to three different interview tactics (no coaching, minimal coaching, extensive coaching) and they will be randomly assigned to three different interviews (open-ended, chronological order, reverse order). There will be a written consent form for the parents of the child to address the permission of the experiment. In addition, this research is ethical because we are not putting children into an immoral situation. Rather we are examining children’s behaviour on why they would lie under certain circumstances. At the end the research, children will be rewarded with a pack of M&Ms.

Study design

My study design will have a closed room with multiple toys that kids can play with. The instigator breaks the toy and steals a piece of the toy and tell the observing child to lie about the transgression to the recipient. We observe if the child lies for the instigator or not.


Instigator and recipient: An adult instigator and an adult recipient (Research Assistant) will be in a closed room with a child participant. The instigator will act as a confederate who coaches the children to lie. The recipient will act as a research assistant who interviews the children with different set of questions.

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  • Consent form: Parents will be given a consent form to sign to give extensive knowledge about the research and the purpose and design of the study.
  • Toys: The toy box will be filled with various items including: Stuffed teddy bear, Gun dam plamodel, LEGO, Puzzles and Barbie doll.
  • M&M chocolate: they will be used during the beginning to get child’s attention and will be again used during the second part of the question asking in chronological order, reverse order, and open-ended question. The child will also be rewarded with more M&Ms after the end of the study.


Coaching scenario

  • No coaching: The Instigator will break a toy and steal a piece of the broken toy and will tell the child to keep the action of the Instigator as a secret. No further instructions to be given.
  • Minimal coaching: The Instigator will break a toy and steal a piece of the broken toy. The Instigator will give two questions regarding about the event. For example, the Instigator may ask “what are you going to tell the recipient if the recipient asks what you were doing?” The recipient could also ask “What are you going to say if the recipient asks about the broken toy?” The recipient could also ask “what are you going to tell the recipient about the missing piece of the toy?” The recipient can also ensure the cooperation of the child by telling him/her “Do not mention anything about the broken toy to the Instigator, this is a secret between us two.”
  • Extensive coaching: The Instigator will break a toy and steal a piece of the broken toy. The Instigator will give two questions regarding about the event. For example, the Instigator may ask “what are you going to tell the recipient if the recipient asks what you were doing?” The recipient could also ask “What are you going to say if the recipient asks about the broken toy?” The recipient could also ask “what are you going to tell the recipient about the missing piece of the toy?” The instigator will then advise the child to conceal the event in order to keep secret of the child. For example, the Instigator will say “we were just talking between us two, we saw the toy box but decided to not play with it since the toys were already broken. We did not touch the toy, it was already broken when we saw it.” The request to conceal the transgression is repeated until the child fully understands the request of the Instigator. The Instigator can ensure compliance by saying “Do not tell the researcher about the broken toy or the missing piece. Just say that it was broken already when we saw it, so we did not play with it.”

Interview question types

  • Open ended question: The recipient will ask open ended questions. For example, the recipient will ask “what were you doing with the Instigator inside the room?”. The recipient could also follow up saying “can you tell me in detail what the Instigator told you to do or say?”
  • Chronological order: The recipient will ask questions in a chronological order. For example, the recipient will say “what was the first thing you did or saw after I left the room?” The recipient will also follow up asking “after you talked with the Instigator, what did you guys do together?”
  • Reverse order: The recipient will ask the question in a reverse order. For example, the recipient asks, “what was the last thing you guys did or talked about?” The recipient will follow up asking, “what did you do before that?” There also could be a filler question asking, “what color was the Instigators hair?”


The Instigator, recipient and a child participant will enter a closed room with cameras on the side observing the room. The Instigator and recipient will build the trust between them and the child by talking about something they like and give the child some M&M candies. The recipient then will point to the toy box and ask them to bring a toy they like. In this case, the child brings a Lego car model that has already been built. After the child’s attention have shifted to the Lego, the recipient will leave the scene only leaving the Instigator and the child. The Instigator then takes the Lego model and smashes it on the floor making the Lego pieces fly everywhere and break into pieces. The Instigator must act like it was an accident to convince the child to not tell the recipient about the broken toy. As they examine the broken Lego, the Instigator also takes a small piece of the Lego and puts it inside his or her pocket. The Instigator must request to keep this event a secret and also inform the child to not tell anyone who broke the Lego or who took the missing piece of the Lego. Out of 240 children, 80 children will be randomly assigned to each of the coaching conditions. After 10 minutes, the recipient will return to the room asking three different questions. These include open ended questions, chronological order questions, and reverse order questions.

Children’s statement will be formed into statistical value whether or not the child tells the truth or lie for each question. We give score 1 if they kept their lies and did not mention about the broken toy or the missing piece. If they told about the broken toy or the missing piece of the toy, the child receives a score of 0. We also give score 1 if the child concealed some of the information and assign score 0 if the child said anything that the Instigator told him/her not to say. The outcome of 1 will say that the child lied, and outcome of 0 means that the child told the truth regardless of the Instigator’s instruction.

At the end of the interview, the Instigator will return to the closed room and tell the recipient that the Instigator broke the toy and took some of the missing piece of the toy. We then inform the child participant that this was an experimental study to evaluate rather the child would lie if they are coached to do so. We tell the child and their parent that this experiment tells us the significance of truth telling and how coaching and increased cognitive load could affect children significantly when making statements.

Expected results

We predict that most of the child participant will lie for the wrongdoing of the Instigator. As predicted, dishonesty was higher among coached children than among noncoached children. (Lyon, Malloy, Quas, Talwar, 2008) The heavier the coaching, children’s lying behaviour increased as coaching required less processing demand of the children. (Talwar et al., 2018) They often do not question the person coaching as they believe that this is what he or she wants. It is also predicted that age also effects the lying behaviour. As mentioned by the authors (Smith, Rizzo, 2017) “age-related changes in moral reasoning have been linked to age -related changes in evaluations and judgements.” (pg.114) This shows that morality develops as people age and even children can be categorized into multiple groups as age impacts heavily on child’s cognitive ability. The research (Smith, Rizzo, 2017) also found that older children are more likely to feel mixed feelings to a self-serving transgressor with positive emotion and guilt. (pg.114) They are able to have more guilt because their cognitive abilities have developed more than younger children. On the other hand, the author (Smith, Rizzo, 2017) says that “young children also tend to view self-serving transgressors as feeling good despite having committed an acknowledged moral wrong.” (pg.114) This shows the younger children still lacks the cognitive abilities to understand that certain lying is morally wrong. Nonetheless, it is evident that coaching improves the ability of a young children to hide certain incidents because younger children’s cognitive abilities are not as developed as the older child. (Malloy, Johnson, Goodman, 2013)

Furthermore, it is predicted that children will conceal the wrongdoing better in responding to questions when they are coached than not coached. The production of a cover story would increase the concealment of an event and their ability to maintain the lie. (Talwar et al., 2018) Children also tend to show harder time maintaining their lies asked in a reverse order of questions. (Vrij et al., 2008) Since coaching requires heavier use of the cognitive load, coaching may be not as effective towards younger children than older children. Younger children must undergo more extensive coaching to conceal their transgression and have more semantic leakage control.


The accuracy of the testimony is especially important when using a child witness testimony. Children’s testimony can be the deciding factor of assessing the guilt of a defendant or the outcome of a custody hearing. (Talwar, Crossman, 2012) It is important to distinguish a credible child witness testimony and a non-credible child witness testimony. The purpose of this study is to address the effect of coaching influence on children’s lying behaviour for the benefit of others. All children in this experiment are asked to conceal an adult’s transgression. The cognitive load was extensively increased when the interviewer asked questions in different circumstances such as restating in a reverse order of what happened. Nevertheless, we assume that practicing concealing transgression with adult coaching would make the detection of the transgression harder.

Implications for the legal system

Implications for the legal system is that if we consider that child witness testimony is not credible, then we can use different recall methods of the event to reveal the concealing transgressions. An adult may coach a child to fabricate or misrepresent or deny an event. (Talwar, Crossman, 2012) Although coaching is useful, it is not as useful when the interviewer asks recall questions in chronological order and reverse order. A legal professional would be able to catch the contradiction of his or her statement when they ask recall questions multiple times because children are not as effective in hiding transgression when asked in multiple ways and different approaches. They are not able to make a coherent story as well as an adult can. In order to make child witness testimony effective in the court, a legal professional should go through an extensive question with multiple approaches to figure out what the child saying is credible or not.

Limitations and future directions

When we examine the limitation of my study, the children’s lying behaviour differs in relation to the seriousness of the transgression. Since the act of breaking a toy and stealing a toy is so minimal that a child may not consider this as a lie that would bring negative repercussions. Familiarity was also important in determining whether or not if a child will lie for that person’s transgression. For example, in the case of a child abuse, a child lies at a court to protect a parent who is accused of abusing the child by falsely denying that the abuse occurred. (Talwar et al., 2004, Pg.412) It is also evident that children will lie more for the person who they are familiar with but less likely towards a person they are not familiar with. (Lyon et al., 2010) However, we must be also aware that age difference also effects the outcome of testimonies. For example, “6-year olds were significantly more likely than 10-year olds to keep a secret about damage caused by the unfamiliar adult.” (Talwar et al., 2004, pg.413) The future examinations should address the effects of coaching by asking multiple questions in a different approach such as asking in a reverse order to sort out if a child is lying to conceal someone else’s transgression or not. The researcher could also make more unanticipated questions or more complicated cover stories to reveal transgressions that a child may possess.


We discussed how coaching and increase in cognitive load could affect children’s lying behaviour. It is also noted that the extent of coaching, different question types, and the age of the participant all effects the children’s lying behaviour and their ability to keep secret. In order to use this research in legal context, we must be aware that younger children tend to lie more than older children when they conceal someone else’s transgression. Children have harder time concealing their transgression when asked in a multiple different approach to interview questions such as stating the event in backwards. It is also highlighted that the familiarity of a person to the child matters if the child will lie for the targeted persons transgression. Legal professionals should keep this in mind and when they engage with a child for a testimony, the professionals should make the child feel comfortable, ask them in multiple order of questions to consider the credibility of their statements.


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  2. Fu, G., Heyman, G. D., Chen, G., Liu, P., & Lee, K. (2015). Children trust people who lie to benefit others. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 129(Complete), 127-139. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.09.006
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  7. Smith, C. E., & Rizzo, M. T. (2017). Children’s confession- and lying-related emotion expectancies: Developmental differences and connections to parent-reported confession behavior. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 156(Complete), 113-128. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2016.12.002
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  10. Talwar, V., Lee, K., Bala, N., & Lindsay, R. C. L. (2006). Adults’ judgments of children’s coached reports. Law and Human Behavior, 30, 561–570.
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