Friday, 11 January 2013

How Reliable Are Young Children As Eyewitnesses?

How Reliable Are Young Children As Eyewitnesses?

How Reliable Are Young Children As Eyewitnesses?

The law has traditionally viewed children as unreliable witnesses, based on perceptions that they are prone to fantasy, that they are suggestible and that their evidence is otherwise inaccurate. General attitudes toward child witnesses have changed dramatically over the last decade, though some psychologists are still divided. Some deem children as reliable and quite capable of providing accurate and detailed testimony (due to their resistance to suggestion regarding events they took part in), whilst others describe them as having difficulties in distinguishing reality, for which further questioning must be initiated, and thus unreliable (Ceci & Bruck). But over all, it is logical to assume that children have similar failings to their adult counterparts, with the possible exception of being more easily confused by technical or complex questions.

When dealing with allegations that relate to the child’s personal experience we are generally dealing with episodic memory. Episodic memory relates to remembering events that have been personally experienced and making sense out of them. Procedures that are utilised by the mind in creating memory are threefold. First, information must be encoded. Some information is only encoded briefly. These short-term memories enter the working memory that holds the information for short time periods. Second, memories must be stored. Information that is not maintained in long-term memory cannot be recalled later. Third, memories must be retrieved. A process goes on in the brain where stored information is located and brought into awareness. Different components of a memory, for example the sensory or visual aspects, may be stored in different parts of the brain. The linking together of these various fragments becomes what a person experiences as a memory.

Given that children's recall and recognition are thought to be inferior to the recall and recognition of adults the question arises as to how much of this inferiority can be attributed to each of the different stages of memory. The answer to this has great significance in relation to the questioning of children as witnesses. If the inferiority of children's recall and recognition is entirely attributable to encoding, then the only matter that needs to be considered is the manner in which courts should receive children's evidence. If, on the other hand, some or all the relative deficiency of children's recall and recognition can be traced to retention and retrieval, then appropriate techniques that minimise the deficiencies can be implemented.

Recall of more realistic material by different age groups has been investigated. In these studies, people of different ages have been exposed to staged events or have viewed a brief segment of a videotape. The findings of these studies suggest that the relationship between recall and age is not a simple matter. Feben (1985) showed her subjects three- minute videotape on ‘fire fighting’ and then tested the subjects' recall of details of the tape. Feben found that young children's recall of specific features of objects depicted in the tape, for example the colour of the fireman's buttons, did not differ greatly from that of adults, but the accuracy of their recall of the theme and the sequence of events was significantly lower.

Goodman and Reed (1986) attempted to examine recall by children and adults of their interaction with an unfamiliar adult. Six- year- olds and adults achieved a similar level of performance on their recall of events elicited by objective questions. However adults recalled much more information, both correct and incorrect, than children. Saywitz (1987) requested her subjects to listen to a description of a crime on audiotape and then gave subjects three different types of memory tests: free recall, recognition, and a number of questions about content that the subjects might not have considered pertinent to the crime for example, asking for a description of clothing or details of the weather. There were two findings of relevance. Firstly, eight and nine- year- olds embellished the story more than older subjects. Secondly, when directed to specific objects and events, for example clothing, young children were accurate in their recall of the features of these objects and events. This latter finding is consistent with the findings of Feben (1985) described above.

It seems that children’s memory for events can be changed by asking leading questions, repeated yes or no questions, and by making misleading suggestions. The goal for interviewing children is to avoid asking leading questions. Yet many courts allow some degree of leading questions, otherwise, children will not speak at all. The problem is that even the most harmless of questions could become leading questions. For example, if the interviewer asks, "What happened when you were with Ken?" there is an assumption that the child was in fact with Ken, and that something did indeed happen (Goodman & Schaaf, 1997). Since it is virtually impossible not to ask leading questions, researchers have looked at the extent to which questions are leading. Some questions, are very leading, e.g., "He kissed you, didn’t he?" The goal in interviewing children is to avoid asking this type of leading question.

Children may also give inaccurate testimony if the language of the questions asked is complex. For example in one study with 5- to 7-year-olds, the question was, "The pirate engaged in blowing bubbles during the course of the puppet show, is that not true?" (Goodman & Schaaf, 1997). Children were 10% more likely to agree with this question than when the question was more simply worded (e.g., the pirate blew bubbles, didn’t he?" Children can also become more suggestible to leading questions if they feel intimidated by the interviewer. Children are less susceptible if the interviewer is friendly towards them.

Children’s recall of events can also be influenced by false information suggested by others. For example, "How fast were the cars going when they ‘smashed’ into each other?" suggests a very fast speed, compared to "How fast were the cars going when they ‘hit’ each other?" A study by Poole and Lindsay (1995) in Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that listening to false information could mislead 4-, 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds. Children interacted with a ‘Mr Science’. They were then interviewed using non-suggestive techniques. The children gave lots of correct information about their interactions with Mr Science. Three months later, some of the children listened to their parents read a story about Mr Science that described events that they had, and had not experienced. The children were interviewed again. The children made many false reports in the second interview.

A study by Rudy and Goodman (1991) in Developmental Psychology, analysed the extent to which 36 7- and 8-year-old children, and 18 4-year-olds, from middle-class homes, had better recall if they participated in an event than if they observed the event. The children were brought to the University by their parents. The researchers met the parents, and organised the children into pairs. One of the children in each pair was randomly made the "participant" and the other the "bystander". The participant was to play the game "Simon says" with an adult stranger, while the other child watched the game. For example, the child was asked to touch their own knee and then the knee of the adult. The adult also dressed the child as a clown, and took a photo of the child. The adult played a thumb-wrestling game with the child, which required the child to hold the adult’s hand. All events were videotaped from behind a one-way mirror.

Children were interviewed about what happened about two weeks later. Parents were shown the interview questions and had an opportunity to delete questions they did not like. Parents also stayed with their children during each interview. First the children were asked to recall what happened during the games. Then they were asked specific questions, some of which were leading, and some of which were misleading. A misleading question is where something is implied to have happened which didn’t happen (e.g., "How many times did he smack you?") or had a tag that implied that the event in the question was true (e.g., "He was very big, wasn’t he?"). The interview included misleading questions, such as: "He didn’t touch you did he?", "Did he kiss you?” and "He took your clothes off didn’t he?"

Results showed that younger children recalled less correct information than did older children, especially about what happened, and about what the games were, though there was no difference in memory for the adult person's appearance. There was also no difference in total recall whether the children were participants or bystanders. In terms of children’s memories, this was an unusual finding in that participation usually involves giving more attention to the task, and more active processing, which should increase recall. Yet this did not happen. In regard to misleading questions, the 4-year-olds were as resistant as the 7-year-olds. Pre-operational children are supposed to be more open to make-believe, but this did not happen. Among the 4-year-olds, the bystanders were more open to misleading suggestions than were the 4-year-old participants. But further analysis showed that even this "bystander" difference disappeared if "don’t know" answers were included in the analysis of responses. A "don’t know" response could be interpreted as "passive resistance" to suggestion (Rudy & Goodman, 1991, p. 535).

The researchers found hardly any "commission" errors for the misleading questions. A commission error is where the child answers that something happened when it did not. An omission error is when the child says something did not happen when it did. Younger children made more omission errors. The researchers concluded that while older children had better recall of what happened, younger children were a lot more resistant to misleading questions than is often thought to be the case. Moreover, children’s recall, and resistance to suggestion, was greater if they had actually participated in the event, especially for the younger children.

Younger children had difficulty stating the adult’s age, but their scores improved dramatically when given a photo identification line-up to look at. This relates to young children’s difficulties in counting. A better procedure for them was the visual photo line-up. Finally, one child came up with some magical interpretations, (e.g., that the adult waved a magic wand to make the other little boy disappear). This links with young children’s make-believe thinking.

Researchers have also found that children most likely to be vulnerable to leading questions are 3- to 5-year-olds (Ceci, Ross, & Toglia, 1987). Preschoolers may think that something happened because an adult has asked them about it. In other words they defer to the status of the adult. Another possible reason why preschoolers give inaccurate testimony is that their memories for events are likely to fade faster than older children and adults, simply because they have less memory capacity.

Much of the research on children’s eyewitness memories has been carried out at a more general theoretical level of children’s memory capacities and strategies, rather than at an applied level, such as the specific problem of children’s ability to recall events in a courtroom situation. Also, research on memory for possible abusive situations has been conducted with non-abused children. This research has been with children who come from protective families in middle-class homes. Abused children often come from very different backgrounds, so it is not clear how well the research on this topic generalises to the subjects of abuse.

Saywitz (1995) suggested several ways to improve children’s ability to testify accurately in court. One way is to ask better questions. In a courtroom situation, children are faced with very complex requirements. The vocabulary of questions can be problematic. Children can understand some courtroom words (e.g., truth, lie, promise, remember), yet not others (e.g., charges, allegation, defendant, jury). For younger children "charges" are what you do with your credit card; "jury" is taken to mean jewellery like their mother wears. Long questions are difficult for young children to understand. Unclear language (e.g., is that not true?) is difficult for young children. Children are sometimes asked to show skills they have not yet acquired. For example, children are asked questions that require them to be able to count (e.g., describe someone’s height, the time of day, distance from the crime, etc), when they can’t count. Better questions would ask the child to answer without counting, such as "Is the person old enough to drive a car?" or "Can you point on the wall to show me how tall the man was?"

The environment may also affect children’s testimony. Some children may be very stressed by the courtroom atmosphere. They may experience embarrassment, fear of having to testify in front of the accused, fear of upsetting family, fear of strangers, fear of being yelled at. This fear, or anxiety could lead to biased answers towards or against the defendant. For example if the child were scared of the defendant, then the child may be more reluctant to answer questions which incriminate him or her, or merely burst out in tears, unable to answer the simplest of questions. Equally if the child were more familiar and friendly with the accused then they would also be less likely to incriminate the defendant, but for the opposite reason. However each child is different to the next, and so their own individual perceptions of the world, and memory ability would affect how reliable their answers are to the questions asked. For example if the child were more courageous then he or she may be more likely to point out the defendant. However this courageousness could also take the form of stubbornness, which in turn could lead to incrimination, where there is none. Research on the subject of children’s individual personalities (long-term behaviour patterns) or sustainable individual moods (short-term behaviour patterns) in relation to children’s biased or non-biased testimonies would be helpful on the topic. The results could then be linked to ‘real’ and ‘false’ children’s memory.

In conclusion, children’s reliability as witnesses is controversial. Many juries are sceptical of testimony given by children under 11 years of age. The research suggests that younger children are less reliable as witnesses, particularly if they are very young, such as 3- and 4-year-olds. Other research suggests that young children can give accurate testimony if the language of their questioners is clear, and if they are given appropriate ways of demonstrating what they remember (e.g., a photo line-up). Children also give better recall and are less open to suggestion if they have actively participated in the event rather than acted as a bystander. Children give more accurate testimony if the questioner is warm and supportive, and if the questions are open-ended. Efforts have also been made to reduce the stress and formality of the courtroom environment in which children give testimony. Children seem to be less stressed and frightened if they are able to give testimony in a supportive situation.


Ceci, S.J., and Bruck, M. (1993). Suggestibility of the child witness: A historical review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 113, 403-439.

Ceci, S.J., Ross, D.F., & Toglia, M.P. (1987). Age differences in suggestibility: Psychological implications. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 117, 38-49.

Feben, D. 1985, Age of witness competency: Cognitive Correlates, Unpublished B. Sc. (Hons) thesis, Department of Psychology, Monash University.

Goodman, G. S. & Reed, R. S. 1986, 'Age differences in eyewitness testimony', Law and Human Behaviour, vol. 10, pp. 317- 32.

Goodman, G.S., & Schaaf, J.M. (1997). Over a decade of research on children’s eyewitness testimony: What have we learned? Where do we go from here? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 11, S5-S20.

Poole, D.A., & Lindsay, D.S. (1995). Interviewing preschoolers: Effects of nonsuggestive techniques, parental coaching, and leading questions on reports of nonexperienced events. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 60, 129-154.

Rudy, L., & Goodman, G. (1991). Effects of participation on children’s reports: Implications for children’s testimony. Developmental Psychology, 27, 527-538.

Saywitz, K. J. 1987, 'Children's testimony age- related patterns of memory errors', in Children's Eyewitness Memory, eds S. J. Ceci, M. P. Toglia, & D. F. Ross, Springer-Verlag, New York.

Saywitz, K.J. (1995). Improving children’s testimony: The question, the answer, and the environment. In M.S. Zaragoza, J.R. Graham, G.C. Hall, R. Hirschman, & Y.S. Ben-Porath (Eds.), Memory and testimony in the child witness (pp. 113-140). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.[/i:b678bae947]

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