- Published: November 8, 2012
An important question in the domain of eyewitness memory is the accuracy and reliability of younger children’s reports of alleged crimes – how trustworthy they are as witnesses. This issue has become especially important recently due to the increased prevalence of traumatic childhood phenomena such as child physical and sexual abuse. In many of the legal cases which come to pass surrounding these alleged events, the accounts and eyewitness testimony given by the children involved are quite often the most critical factors influencing the verdicts of the judge or the jury. Children’s suggestibility is a major reason why their utility as eyewitnesses has been seriously questioned. ‘Suggestibility’ is defined as the degree to which encoding, storage, retrieval and the reporting of events is manipulated by certain internal and external factors . One way that suggestibility is prominently displayed is when misleading information is introduced through leading questions, which are questions asked by the interviewer that contain the desired information or the ‘correct’ answer that the interviewer is looking for. Leading questions stem from what is known as interviewer bias (IB), one of the main factors and classes of problems involved in distorted reports by child eyewitnesses. Interviewer bias is characterized by an interviewer who holds prior beliefs or hypotheses about an event and directs the interview with the goal of eliciting from the interviewee (in this case, the child) statements that are in line with these beliefs/hypotheses . One example of a study that documents age differences in suggestibility is Cassel and Bjorklund (1995). In this study, adults, 8-year-olds and 6-year-olds watched a video of 2 children arguing over a bicycle and were then asked to perform free and cued-recall as well as answer positive and negative leading questions in multiple interviews. The results displayed age differences in suggestibility: the 6-year-olds were the most suggestible to leading questions than participants in the other two age groups (the adults and the older children). Further, changed answers to questions (to match what the child perceived was the desired answer) were most common for 6-year-olds . Children, and particularly younger children, are prone to suggestive influences.
Interviewer bias clearly exposes children’s suggestibility, but in some studies children appear to almost spontaneously incorporate erroneous information into their reports of events when little strong interviewer bias is in play. One example is Bruck, Ceci and Hembrooke (1997), in which preschool children were persuaded, through suggestive techniques, that certain false autobiographical events were actually true. By the third interview, almost all of the children had accepted that the false events were actually true even when they were questioned later by an unbiased, new interviewer. It appears as though children were able to convince themselves over time (after repeatedly imagining the event, etc.) that suggested events actually happened and continued to believe so when asked questions by the unbiased interviewer. Furthermore, the children even spontaneously added their own little details and embellishments to their constructed accounts . A significant cause for concern in having children serve as eyewitnesses is the fact that they have been shown by many studies to be quite susceptible to not only blatant suggestive influences such as obvious interviewer biases but also to more subtle suggestive influences.
In brief, researchers have found several factors that contribute to suggestibility in young children, including parental attachment and cognitive inhibition, interviewer bias (as discussed), source monitoring errors, and encoding specificity. Fortunately, research has also been conducted to analyze how such factors may be overcome. Several protocols and methods have been found that have been effective in enchancing accurate recall. For combating interviewer bias, several protocols have been developed including the Stepwise interview (based on a ‘funnel-like’ strategy in which interviewers begin the interview with broad, free-recall or open-ended questions and then slowly take steps to more focused questions), the NICHD Protocol, developed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) (comprised of an introductory, rapport-building phase, free-recall practice, explanation to the child about rules and guidelines they should be aware of, and finally open-ended questions). Source monitoring training and also reminders and context reinstatement of the crime scene appear to be at the very least useful ways of enhancing children’s accounts of their experience. Finally, some children actually do better in using non-verbal reporting methods in interviews such as drawing what they remember experiencing. It is clear that all many of these solutions must be incorporated when appropriate into a forward-looking legal system that effectively prepares for interviewing child witnesses and eliciting accurate testimony and details from young witnesses.
 Bruck, M., & Ceci, S. J. (1997). The Suggestibility of Young Children. Current Directions in Psychological Science , 75-79.
 Cassel, W. S., & Bjorklund, D. F. (1995). Developmental Patterns of Eyewitness Memory and Suggestibility . Law and Human Behavior .
 Bruck M, Ceci SJ, Hembrooke H. 1997. Children.s reports of pleasant and unpleasant events. In Recollections of Trauma: Scientific Research and Clinical Practice, ed. D Read, S Lindsay, pp. 199.219. New York: Plenum