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Monday, November 08, 1999Children's recollections can be easily distorted by a 'trustworthy' adult
Carol Milstone, PhD
Anyone who knows kids knows that their memories are suggestible. But just how suggestible are they? And why have they been relied on so unquestioningly for thousands of child sexual abuse cases across North America since the early 1980s? These are the issues addressed by child memory experts Maggie Bruck (McGill University) and Stephen Ceci (Cornell University) in the current Annual Review in Psychology. Bruck and Ceci explain that, prior to the 1980s, there was some academic understanding that children's memories could be easily distorted, yet there was little research on the topic. In the absence of this research, and under pressure from feminist sensitivity to sexual abuse, many courts eliminated competency requirements for child witnesses and began allowing children to provide uncorroborated testimony in sexual abuse cases. Fearful of false prosecutions from these relaxed legal standards, memory psychologists soon began to measure the influence of common interview techniques on a child's memory. The bottom line from these studies is that when children are repeatedly and suggestively interviewed about false events, many children will eventually report the false events as true. And worse, children producing biased testimony appear highly credible, even to trained professionals. Young children are co-operative, explain Bruck and Ceci. They perceive their adult interviewer as truthful and they want to comply with a respected adult. Proven techniques to bias children's recollections include leading questions (He took your clothes off, didn't he?), emotionally threatening questions (Are you afraid to tell? You'll feel better once you've told), biased introductions (Sometimes your Uncle Harry does bad things. Can you tell me what he's done to you?) and the use of anatomically detailed dolls (give such a doll plus a stethoscope to any young child after a routine medical exam and just watch what the child will come up with). Other problematic techniques include specific questions (Where did he hurt you?), guided imagery (Let's close our eyes and go back to your nursery school), non-verbal cues (smiling, mm-hmm, etc.) and repeated misinformation over weekly interview sessions.
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