Do children make good witnesses?
Contrasting views of children as witnesses:
Whipple (1910): children are the "most
dangerous of witnesses" - remember little, and
prone to fantasy.
Varendonck (1911): 16 out of 18 seven-year olds
described teacher's (non-existent!) beard.
"When are we going to give up, in all civilised
nations, listening to children in courts of law?".
Lipmann (1911): children cannot distinguish
fact from fantasy.
Binet (1900), Stern (1910): children are
susceptible to leading questions.
Alternative view: children are "innocent" and
hence reliable.
Dent (1988): under optimum conditions,
children's memories can be as reliable as adults'.
Why are children problematic witnesses?
Both social and cognitive factors:
1. Poorer knowledge-base: may understand less of what
they see.
2. Less well-developed metamemory skills may lead to
poorer encoding and recall.
3. Poorer reality monitoring may lead to difficulty in
distinguishing between fact and fantasy.
4. Greater susceptibility to misinformation effects from
Children's performance compared to adults:
1. Accuracy of identification:
Chance and Goldstein (1984):
Level of correct identifications of a once-seen face
increases with age: adult performance by age 12.
False recognitions decrease with age.
In eyewitness simulations, all ages do poorly.
Diamond and Carey (1977):
Claimed "encoding switch" from
piecemeal to configural encoding
occurred at about 10 years of age.
Not supported by subsequent
Freire and Lee (2001):
4-5 year olds can use configural
information to recognise "Bob", but
are easily distracted by
Davies, Stevenson-Robb and Flin (1988):
Children more likely to false identify a face from a
target-absent array as one they have seen before,
even after practice at not doing so.
Relative judgements of age, height and weight
better than absolute ones.
Mean (absolute) discrepancies between actual and estimated values:
Evidence for configural processing in children:
Tanaka, Kay, Grinnell, Stansfield and Szechter
6, 8 and 10 year old children all show face
superiority effect with upright (but not inverted)
Older children more affected by inversion.
Evidence for configural processing in children:
Mondloch, Le Grand and Maurer (2002):
"Jane" and sisters have Featural,
Spacing or Contour differences.
6, 8,10 year olds and adults saw pairs of
faces, upright and inverted.
All ages similar in accuracy on Featural
and Contour changes.
Adults show inversion effect for Spacing set; children worse than
adults on Spacing set.
Configural processing develops more slowly than featural.
2. Accuracy of verbal recall:
Marin, Holmes, Guth and Kovac (1979):
Subjects aged 6 to adult viewed a staged argument between two
Adults recalled 5-6 times more information than 6 yr olds.
No age differences in proportion of errors in free recall (<10%).
Typical findings of studies on children's recall:
1. Accuracy of spontaneous recall is comparable to adults'.
2. Spontaneously produce much less information.
3. More susceptible to being influenced by interviewer.
Flin, Boon, Know and Bull (1992):
Effects of delay between event and witness' interview.
Adults, 6 and 9 year-olds witnessed staged "mishap" during
foot-care lecture.
"Cued" recall - set of 26 questions.
"Enhanced" recall - free recall plus specific questions plus
context reinstating questions.
Interviewed 1 day and 5 months later.
"Control": cued recall; interviewed only once (at 5 months).
No age differences in recall after
one day.
All groups' recall accuracy was
reduced by 5 months' delay: the
younger the group, the greater
the reduction.
Delay increased number of
inaccurate responses in all
groups; no clear effects of age.
No advantage of enhanced recall
over cued recall.
Suggestibility increased with
delay in children but not adults.
Percentage correct (out of 26
6 yr
9 yr
1 day
5 mths
Jones and Pipe (2002):
"visiting the pirate":
5-7 year olds' memory tested
0, 1-day, 1-week, 1 month or 6
months later.
Most rapid forgetting was soon
after the event (as in adults).
For open-ended recall, a
significant decrease was
detected only after 6 months'
Qualitative differences in spontaneous reporting:
King and Yuille (1986):
Youngest children report action details and ignore actors' physical
Older children and adults recall more details of actors.
Yuille, Cutshall and King (1986):
Children observed bicycle "theft".
8 and 10 yr olds similar in recall of events, but 10 yr olds recalled
spontaneously nearly 90% more information about the thief's
Problems with distinguishing fact from fantasy:
Johnson, Bransford and Solomon (1979):
"Real stimuli" trials: shown a picture 0-3 times.
"Imagined stimuli" trials: imagined a picture 0-3 times.
Judge the frequency of actual presentations.
Confusion no greater for children (8, 10, 12) than adults.
Johnson and Raye (1984):
Review of their "reality monitoring" studies.
Say-listen, listen-listen, listen-think, do-watch, watch-watch: no agedifferences.
say-think, do-think: age-differences (6 < 9 < adults).
Ackil and Zaragoza (1995):
Effects of age on source memory. 7, 9, 11 and ug's saw movie.
Experimenter read summary containing information that was not in
the video (supplemented, rather than contradicted).
Tested either immediately or 1 week later.
For each item, asked:
(a) whether remembered seeing the item in the video;
(b) whether remembered hearing the item in the summary.
All subjects "remembered" seeing suggested items.
Younger children made more source confusions than older; worse
when testing was delayed.
(a) Memory for source is an inference; children less skilled at this.
(b) Age-differences in visual imagery.
(c) Poorer at encoding information about the source itself.
False memory syndrome:
".... one of my first memories would date, if it were true, from my second
year. I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, in which I believed
until I was about fifteen. I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was
pushing in the Champs Elysees, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was
held in by the strap fastened around me while my nurse bravely tried to
stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches, and I
can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a
policeman with a short cloak and a white baton came up, and the man
took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it
near the tube station.
When I was about fifteen, my parents received a letter from my former
nurse saying that she had been converted to the Salvation Army. She
wanted to confess her past faults, and in particular to return the watch
she had been given as a reward on this occasion. She had made up the
whole story, faking the scratches. I, therefore, must have heard, as a
child, the account of this story, which my parents believed, and projected
into the past in the form of a visual memory."
Jean Piaget, in Plays, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood
False memory syndrome:
Hyman, Husband and Billings (1995):
Suggested false memories to students at first interview; these
were sometimes incorporated into recollections at second
Ceci et al (1994):
Preschoolers repeatedly asked to think about real and false
events, e.g. "did you ever get your finger caught in a mousetrap
and go to hospital?" 1/3 incorrectly "remembered" false events
they had originally denied.
Loftus and Coan (1995):
Older siblings reminded younger siblings about childhood
experiences including getting lost in a mall. Never occurred, but
repeated asking about it led individuals to "remember" it.
Ways to improve children's recall:
1. Social support:
e.g. interview with friend present (e.g. Moston and Engleberg 1992).
2. Rapport building by interviewer:
Warm, friendly interviewers best (e.g. Goodman, Bottoms and
Schwartz-Kenney, 1991; Goodman, Sharma, Thomas and
Considine, 1995).
3. Context reinstatement:
Provides recall cues, reduces verbal demands (e.g.Wilkinson,
4. Cognitive Interview:
Koehnken, Milne, Memon and Bull (1994): meta-analysis of
effectiveness of Cognitive Interview for children.
Increases amount of correct details and false information recalled:
overall accuracy rate remains constant.
"Recall in reverse order" and "change perspective" instructions
confuse children.
Bruck and Melnyk (2004): individual differences in
interrogative suggestibility
demographic factors
(SES, gender)
psycho-social factors
(self-concept, compliance, social
engagement, stress/emotional arousal/state
anxiety, mother's attachment style, parentchild relationship, parenting style,
temperament, mental health)
cognitive factors
(intelligence, memory, Theory of Mind,
executive function, distractibility, creativity)
(readiness to agree with
misinformation or
misleading questions)
source misattribution
(inability to identify whether
events had occurred or were
misinformation effects
(incorporation of false
information into later
reports about an event)
false event creation
(construction of an entire
event that never happened)
Reviewed 58 papers (69 studies containing 500+ analyses) on
individual differences in children's suggestibility.
Only 16% of all correlations were significant: outliers? Or is
suggestibility caused by a complex combination of cognitive and
psycho-social factors?
SES, gender and IQ are unrelated to suggestibility.
Retarded children are more suggestible than normal children.
Event memory in one setting correlates poorly with suggestibility in
another setting.
Weak/inconsistent relationships between suggestibility and all variables
Children with advanced language skills more resistant to suggestion.
High creativity associated with suggestibility and false event creation.
Insecure/avoidant mothers have the most suggestible children.
(Do children raised by secure and supportive parents have positive selfconcepts?)
Impossible to identify whether a particular child would be suggestible.
Clarke-Stewart, Malloy and Allhusen (2004):
Suggestibility to miselading questions about playroom events was
most reliably predicted by
verbal ability
relationships with parents
Children with good verbal abilities, high self-control and close and
secure relationships with parents, were more resistant to
suggestive questions.
(But, five-factor multiple regression R = 0.57 - still explains only 32%
of the variance in suggestibility!)
Under the right circumstances, children can be reliable and
accurate witnesses.
Main problems are lack of metamemory skills, and
susceptibility to interviewer effects (adults perceived as
omniscient and authoritative).
Difficult to predict with any accuracy whether an individual
child is suggestible, since suggestibility depends on a complex
interaction between characteristics of event, child and

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