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Children's Suggestibility and Memory. Primary Reference. Malloy & Quas (2009) Children’s Suggestibility: Areas of Consensus and Controversy. In K. Kuehnle & M. Connel (Eds.), The Evaluation of Child Sexual Abuse Allegations (pp. 267-297). Wiley . . What is suggestibility?.

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Children's Suggestibility and Memory

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Children's Suggestibility



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Primary Reference

  • Malloy & Quas (2009) Children’s Suggestibility: Areas of Consensus and Controversy. In K. Kuehnle & M. Connel (Eds.), The Evaluation of Child Sexual Abuse Allegations (pp. 267-297). Wiley.

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What is suggestibility?

  • Suggestibility can be defined as the degree to which one's "memory" and/or "recounting" of an event is influenced by exposure to suggested information or misinformation

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Are children influenced by what they overhear?

Presidential Politics 2008!

A 4-year-old boy and his 2-year-old sister debate who would be the best president

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Why is children’s suggestibility an important consideration when assessing for CSA?

  • In most cases of suspected CSA, the child’s abuse-related statements are the only evidence relating to sexual abuse

  • Thus, it is important to determine whether the child was influenced in some fashion to make false allegations, e.g., by being asked leading questions

  • Whether your role is to question a child about sexual abuse yourself, or to determine whether interviews by others were ‘leading’ (or both), knowledge about children’s suggestibility is critical

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The Attack on the Interviewer

  • Those who conduct screening/evaluation for CSA are often criticized for “leading” children to make false allegations of sexual abuse.

  • According to the National Center on the Prosecution of Child Abuse, this is currently the most often used defense in child sexual abuse cases.

  • It is also one of the most effective defenses in CSA cases.

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Inappropriate leading and coercive interviewing of children has occurred in some highly publicized cases

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The Kelly Michaels Case

  • In 1988, a preschool teacher named Kelly Michaels was convicted of 115 counts of sexual abuse against twenty children, ages 3 to 5

  • She was sentenced to serve 47 years in prison.

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Kelly Michaels’ Appeal

  • Kelly Michaels Appealed her case to the Appeals Court of New Jersey.

  • In coming to it’s decision, the Appeals Court considered the nature of the interviews of the suspected victims and recent scientific research regarding the suggestibility of preschoolers

  • The Appeals Court then reversed all of Kelly Michaels’ convictions and noted that the interviews of the suspected victims were highly leading and were likely to give rise to inaccurate testimony by such young children.

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The Prosecution Appeals to the New Jersey Supreme Court

  • The N.J. Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s reversal of conviction.

  • The Court found that the interviewing in this case was so flawed that, if the prosecution decided to retry the case, they must first hold a pre-trial “taint hearing” and show that despite improper interviewing techniques, the allegations of the child witnesses were sufficiently reliable to admit them as witnesses at trial.

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Excerpts from the transcript of a child interview in St. v. Michaels

The interview excerpts that follow demonstrate highly suggestive and leading questioning.

However, the preschooler that was being interviewed was NOT a highly suggestible preschooler!

  • Although some children acquiesce to leading and suggestive questioning, other children resist being led . . .

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Excerpts from the transcript of a child interview in St. v. Michaels

Q Did Kelly have hair? [referring to privates]

A Nah, I know ‘cause it’s grown ups . . . I know about that.

Q So I guess that means you saw her private parts, huh? Did Kelly ask the kids to look at her private parts, or to kiss her private part or . . .

A I didn’t really do that . . . I didn’t even do that.

QBut she made you.

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Later in the same interview, after the child has denied‘kissing Kelly’s private parts’

QDid it smell good? (referring to Kelly’s privates)


QHer private parts?

AI don’t know.

QDid it taste good? Did it taste like chocolate?

AHa, ha. No, I didn’t even do it . . .

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Child Interview (continued)

QYou Wee Care kids seem so scared of her.

AI wasn’t. I’m not even. . .

QBut while you were there, were you real scared?

AI don’t know.

QWhat was so frightening about her, what was so scary about her?

AI don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?

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In some cases, children were:

  • Told about the allegations of other children (contamination);

  • Not permitted to go to the bathroom or see their mother until they provided allegations (coercion);

  • Bribed with ice cream, etc. to provide allegations (bribery).

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YES. Some children are suggestible—at least under certain circumstances

Adults are, too—but generally less so than children under 10 or 11

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Suggestibility is not ‘Unidirectional’

  • Children can sometimes be led to falsely claim abuse

  • Children can also be led to falsely deny abuse

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  • Age! (most reliable predictor of suggestibility)

  • Time span between event and interview (‘retention interval’)

  • Interviewer bias

  • Asking leading questions repeatedly

  • Question type: open-ended; “wh” questions; option-posing; leading

  • Stereotyping

  • Encouraging guessing and imagining

  • Social pressure, e.g., “Your mom told me ______”

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  • The most reliable factor that affects children’s memory and suggestibility is AGEat the time of the interview

  • This is to be distinguished from age at the time of the event

  • Younger children remember less, provide less information, and make more errors in response to leading/suggestive questions than older children

  • Preschoolers (especially 3- and 4-year-olds) are the most suggestible age group

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  • Time span between the event (e.g., abuse) and the interview

  • Memory fades over time

  • As memory decreases, suggestibility increases—for all ages, but especially for preschoolers

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Are school-aged children and adults able to recall events that occurred when they were under 3 years old?

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“Childhood Amnesia”

  • In general, school-aged children through adults cannot remember and verbally recount events that occurred before the age of 3 or 4 years

  • This is true regardless of whether the event was negative or positive

  • Children ages 2 – 7 underwent an invasive medical procedure (insertion of catheter through urethra after bladder was filled with a contrast medium); and were questioned 1 to 5 years later:

    • NONE of the children who were 2 at the time of the procedure recalled it; half of those who were 3 at the time of the procedure recalled it; most of those who were 4 at the time of the procedure recalled it

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Memory deteriorates rapidly in very young children

  • It is NOT true that children ages 2-3 cannot remember any prior experiences; they can and DO

  • But their memory fades more quickly than that of older children and adults and eventually disappears

  • The rapid memory deterioration is due in large part to poor consolidation of information into long-term storage accounts for (linkages)

  • Children this age are especially susceptible to forgetting and leading (poorer memory=increased suggestibility)

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Young children tend to defer to adults’ renditions of events:

  • They view adults as ‘older and wiser’

  • They defer to adult authority and are reluctant to disagree with or ‘correct’ an adult

  • Therefore, they are more likely to follow an adult’s suggestion even if they believe or know the adult is wrong

  • Implications for interviewers: express lack of knowledge for the events in question, encourage child to correct your mistakes, act friendly rather than authoritarian

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  • Interviewer bias is present when one has a preconceived notion about what happened (jumping to conclusions)

  • ‘Biased interviewers’ tend to inadvertently or deliberately seek confirmation for their beliefs by making suggestive comments, asking leading questions, repeating questions until the desired or expected response is eventually obtained, or by otherwise providing positive and negative reinforcement which has the effect of molding the child’s responses to conform with the interviewer’s beliefs

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The biased interviewer’s beliefs tend to be adopted by the child

  • “These studies [regarding children’s suggestibility’ have found that children who are interviewed by an interviewer who has been misinformed or who has a bias about what occurred begin to report this misinformation themselves.”

    Ceci et al. (2007). Unwarranted assumptions about children’s testimonial accuracy. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology.

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  • Suggestive/leading questioning-especially if done repeatedly-increases suggestibility

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Definition of Leading and Suggestive Questions

  • Leading occurs on a ‘continuum’ from mildly leading (suggestive) to highly leading

  • Questions (or comments) that encourage, tempt or pressure the child to provide a particular response are leading

  • Questions (or comments) that suggest new information that was not provided by the child are often suggestive or leading

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Examples of Leading Questions

  • Asked of a 4 year old boy who had never alleged any sexual abuse but whose penis was red and irritated:

    • Did your daddy put his mouth on your pee-pee?

  • Asked of a 3 year old girl who was observed rubbing her own vagina:

    • Who taught you to do that?

    • Did Daddy teach you to do that?

    • Does Daddy to that to you?

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  • Repetitive suggestive questioning, even if only mildly suggestive, can increase suggestibility—especially if combined with other suggestibility factors

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  • ‘Free Recall’ is elicited by ‘open-ended’ questions and prompts (essay test)

    • Tell me what happened

  • ‘Recognition memory’ is elicited by ‘closed-ended’ questions/prompts (true/false, multiple choice test)

    • Did he touch your butt, too?

    • Did it happen in your bedroom or your mom’s bedroom?

  • ‘Leading’ questions are most likely to elicit inaccurate responses

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Free Recall (“open-ended”) Questions/Prompts Elicit the Most Accurate Information

  • Example:

    • Tell me why you came to talk to me today

    • Tell me what happened

    • Tell me all about that

    • Tell me more about that

    • Then what happened?

  • Even very young children can provide accurate (albeit less detailed) information in response to such questions/prompts

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Direct/Focused Questions(from less risky to more risky)

  • Non-suggestive “wh” questions (who, what, where, when, how):

    • What happened? Who was there? How did it feel?

  • Option-posing questions:

    • Yes/no and multiple choice. “Did he touch you between the legs?” “Were you in your room or your mom’s room”?

  • Leading

    • Tag: I’ll bet it hurt a lot when he touched you down there, didn’t it?

    • False Suppositional: When the man broke the toy, was he playing or did he do it on purpose? (the man wasn’t doing anything with the toy)

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The Problem with

Option-Posing Questions

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Option-Posing Questions Defined

“Yes/no” and Multiple Choice Questions

Example: Assume that the child previously told the interviewer that Roger touched her pee-pee, but she has never alleged that Roger did anything else to her . . .

Did Roger lick your pee-pee, too? (Yes/no)

Were you in your bedroom or in Roger’s room when Roger touched your pee-pee? (Multiple choice)

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  • 85% of the contradictory statements made by children during forensic interviews were made in response to “yes/no” (option-posing) questions (Orbach & Lamb, 2001)

  • Children (especially preschoolers) tend to GUESS and provide incorrect responses when asked option-posing questions

    • The guess may be random or based on information suggested by the interviewer

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Option-posing Questionsvs.Open-ended Questions

  • Children’s responses to open-ended questions (e.g., “Tell me all about that” ) are generally far more consistent and reliable than their responses to option-posing questions

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Even children as young as 4 years old can provide substantial information in response to open-ended questions

  • (Using the NICHD interview protocol), almost half of the information provided by 4- to 6-year-olds was in response to open-ended questioning (Lamb et al., 2003)

  • Although young children provide less information in response to open-ended questioning than older children do, the information they provide is no less accurate

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Forensic interviewers tend to rely far more on Option-Posing questions than on Open-ended questions

In general, about one-third of the questions asked by forensic interviewers are option-posing questions

Only about 6% of CSA investigators’ questions are open-ended invitations (i.e., “Tell me more about that”)

This is true even though children’s responses to open-ended questions are generally far more accurate!

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Forensic Interviewers also tend to ask Option-posing questions PREMATURELY

  • Although option-posing questions are sometimes necessary, they should not be used until open-ended questions are no longer eliciting information

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  • Stereotype induction—characterizing someone in a particular way (negative or positive)

  • Negative stereotyping

    • He’s bad. He’s always doing bad things to kids.

  • Positive stereotyping:

    • I’m sure your dad would never do anything bad like that

  • Encouraging guessing or ‘imagining’ about the event increases suggestibility

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  • Guessing:

    QDid anyone touch your pee pee?

    • I don’t know.

      Q. Well, take a guess

  • Imagining:

    “Pretend this doll is you and pretend that doll is your uncle; and show me what they might do together”

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  • Telling a young child that “other kids” or “your mom” or others said __________ about the event in question can pressure children to go along with what others supposedly said

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Open-ended questions don’t ‘always’ elicit accurate statements

  • Although free-recall reports (elicited by open-ended questions) are generally most accurate, children who were previously exposed to extensive suggestions or pressure (from interviewers or others) are not exempt from errors when later asked open-ended questions about the same events

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Consider the ‘chain of evidence” when evaluating the accuracy of children’s allegations regarding CSA

  • Children’s recollections and statements about abuse are analogous to crime scene evidence, which can be ‘contaminated’ by mishandling

  • If a preschooler was repeatedly questioned in a highly suggestive manner by a biased interviewer in the past, the preschooler’s later statements in response to open-ended questioning may well be ‘contaminated’ and inaccurate

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Conditions Under Which Children Are Most Likely To Be Suggestible

  • When leading questions are asked repeatedly—especially with very young children (3 and 4 year olds are most suggestible)

  • When children don’t understand that it’s important to tell the truth

  • When they think it’s okay to “guess.”

  • When they don’t think it’s okay to “correct” the interviewer’s mistakes

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The “New Wave” in Suggestibility Research

  • Stephen Ceci (Cornell) and colleagues

  • Research designed to MAXIMIZE children’s suggestibility

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The “Sam Stone” studyThe Impact of Stereotypes and Leading Questions and Guessingon Young Children’s Accounts

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5 & 6 year-olds


3 & 4 year-olds


“SAM STONE” STUDYPercent of children assenting to false allegations after 7-10 weeks of leading interviews:

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Why were these children so suggestible?

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Researchers often have to go to great lengths to lead children to provide elaborate accounts of non-events

  • A singular misleading question does not typically elicit elaborate accounts of non-events—even from 3- and 4-year-olds.

  • “We really had to work hard to get children to provide detailed accounts of non-events” Stephen Ceci

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AGE was the primary factor (when combined with repetitive Leading Questions, Guessing, & Stereotyping)

  • The children in this study were 3 to 6 years old

  • Preschoolers (especially 3 and 4-year-olds) are far more suggestible than older children and adults

  • 10-11 year-olds are essentially equivalent to adults with regard to their ‘memory’ being influenced or distorted by suggested information

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  • Children were repeatedly asked highly leading questions for 7-10 weeks

  • This sometimes happens in real-life cases; although probably not often

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“Stereotyping” was a factor

  • For several weeks, children were repeatedly told stories about Sam Stone being clumsy and as accidentally destroying things.

  • In real-life cases, children sometimes overhear one parent speaking badly about the other parent—but not usually about sexual abuse

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Children were encouraged to “GUESS”

When children said they did not know who ripped the book or got the teddy bear dirty, they were asked:

“Who might have ripped the book/gotten the teddy bear dirty?”

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There was no emphasis on TELLING THE TRUTH

Kids are not required to tell the truth in all situations, i.e., playing games, telling stories, casual conversations

Kid’s don’t assume that telling the truth is important in all situations

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Young children who were not led or encouraged to guess during the Sam Stone study were quite accurate

“Of the 3- and 4-year-olds who were not exposed to repetitive and highly leading questions or stereotypes about the ‘offender,’ and who were not asked to “guess” answers, 90% were still accurate after three months.”

Stephen Ceci

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THE “MOUSETRAP” STUDY(Source Misattributions)Did it really happen or did I only hear about it?

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  • “Source Misattribution”

  • Misidentifying the Source of one’s MEMORY

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Source Misattributions do occur under certain circumstances-especially with 3 and 4 year olds

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In the Mousetrap study, very young children were repeatedly:

Told about non-events

Shown pictures of non-events

Encouraged to “think real hard” about and visualize these non-events and what it would be like to experience them

Repeatedly asked (leading) questions about the non-events

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Is this a Storytelling Game?

  • Some kids might have thought that this was a storytelling game.

  • Nobody said they had to talk about things that “really happened.”

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Didn’t you like the first answer I gave you?

  • Some kids might have thought that the questions were being repeated week after week because they gave the wrong answer earlier or because the interviewer simply did not like their earlier answer.

  • Some children might have changed their answer because they wanted to get it ‘right.’

  • Some children may have changed their answer to please the adult—even though the child may have known that their first answer was right

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Nevertheless, “most” of the preschoolers did not come to affirm that these ‘fictitious’ events had occurred

  • 66% resisted repeated leading questioning about negative and positive fictional events over 7—10 interviews

  • When interviewed two years later, nearly 80% of the children who had succumbed to leading recanted the allegations they had been led to make

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  • Age plays a major role in children’s accuracy in reporting bodily touches

  • Between 2 and 4 years of age, children often experience genital touching in the course of normal parenting behavior, e.g., bathing, wiping, application of medication for diaper rashes, etc. Therefore, genital touches may not be particularly memorable for kids this age

  • Children ages 2 to 4 also have developmental limitations that contribute to inaccuracies in describing genital touching

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A Study of ~3-year-olds’ accuracy in reporting bodily touches with and without the use of Anatomically Detailed Dolls

Bruck et al. (1995). Anatomically detailed dolls do not facilitate preschoolers’ reports of a pediatric examination involving genital touching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied

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Bruck, et al. (1995) Research Design

  • Two groups of 3-year-olds underwent a routine medical examination; one group (‘genital exam’ condition) had a genital/anal exam that involved gentle separation of the labia/buttocks (but no penetration or rubbing); the other group did not receive a genital/anal exam or any touching of the genitals/buttocks and their underpants remained on during the examination

  • Immediately after the exam, both groups of children were questioned about the exam interviewed in a leading manner with and without the use of anatomical dolls

  • Also, the group that underwent a genital/anal exam was asked to show on ananatomical doll and on their own bodies how the doctor had touched their genitals/buttocks

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Bruck et al (1995) FINDINGS

  • When asked, “Did the doctor touch you here?” (pointing to the doll’s genitals, and then to the doll’s buttocks), about half of the children in BOTH groups responded inaccurately

    • About half of those whose genitals/buttock were not touched by the doctor falsely claimed the doctor had touched their genitals or buttocks

    • About half of those whose genitals/buttocks were touched by the doctor falsely denied the doctor had touched their genitals/buttocks

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Bruck et al (1995) FINDINGS(continued)

  • When asked to demonstrate with anatomical dolls how they were touched, 42% of the girls in the ‘genital exam’ group erroneously inserted a finger into the doll’s genital or anal opening or rubbedthose areas.

  • When asked to demonstrate on their own bodies, 65% of these girls were inaccurate in demonstrating how they were touched.

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IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT THE Bruck et al. (1995) Study

  • The mean AGE of the sample in the Bruck et al. study was only 35 months (not quite 3 years old)

  • In a very similar study by Saywitz et al. (1991) involving 5- and 7-year-olds, error rates for children in the ‘non-genital’ condition were much lower. When asked whether the doctor touched them ‘there,’ pointing to the doll’s genitals/buttocks, only 3% falsely claimed genital touching; and 6% falsely claimed buttocks touching.

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IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT THE Bruck et al. (1995) Study (continued)

  • In the Bruck et al. study, when children in the ‘non-genital’ condition said “No” when asked, ‘Did the doctor touch you there? (pointing to the genitals and the buttocks), the children were then asked the highly leading question:“Show me how the doctor touched your (buttocks/genitals)”

  • Thus, initially some children correctly denied that the doctor had touched their buttocks/genitals; however, they were later “led” to respond inaccurately

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Dolls of any sort should not be used by very young children for demonstration purposes

  • Children younger than approximately 3½ years old have not yet mastered “symbolic representation” and are therefore unable to use dolls and other props to accurately depict what they have experienced.

  • It is less risky to use them for body parts identification

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Anatomical Dolls and other props can serve as “Distracters”

  • This is especially true for children under 5 years old and for older children who tend to be distractible.

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Young children sometimes look to ‘environmental clues’ to answer adult’s questions

  • In the Bruck et al. study, children sometimes used available props in an inaccurate fashion, e.g., demonstrating how the doctor used the toy stethoscope to examine their genitals or anal area

  • Interviewers should be cautious about asking very young children (i.e., 3-year-olds) to re-enact events with props

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Other Media Are Less Controversial and Often as Effective As Anatomical Dolls

  • Research to date has not shown that Anatomical Dolls are far superior to less controversial media for eliciting accurate accounts from children

  • Non-anatomical dolls

  • ‘Cookie-cutter’ and Stick-figure Drawings

  • Anatomical drawings (however, such drawings might provide sexually naïve children with new information, i.e., pubic hair)

  • Interviewers should always attempt to elicit a clear “verbal” description of sex acts

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Similarities Between the Research and “some” real-life cases

  • Sometimes children are questioned for weeks or months in a highly leading fashion by well-intentioned but biased parents, therapists, investigators and others.

  • Sometimes children are influenced by what they overhear, i.e., angry parent talking to a friend about the other parent.

  • Sometimes (though probably rarely) parents or others deliberately influence children to make false sex abuse allegations.

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Beware of the Misapplication of Suggestibility Research to Children of a Different Age

  • Because there are significant AGE DIFFERENCES in suggestibility, it would be inappropriate to generalize research findings about preschoolers to older children

    • By the time children are 10-11 years old, they are essentially equivalent to adults with regard to suggestibility

    • Even 5-year-olds are significantly less suggestible than 3- and 4-year-olds

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Beware of the Misapplication of Suggestibility Research to Real-life Sex Abuse Cases

  • Much of the suggestibility research has limited “ecological validity,” i.e., the extent to which the research mimics real-world situations

    • Sexual abuse differs in many ways from the type of events that researches have attempted to ‘lead’ children about, such as:

      • Sam Stone accidentally soiling a teddy bear or ripping a book

      • Getting one’s finger caught in a mousetrap

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According to Ceci, it was not easy to lead children to make false allegations—even when the allegation did not relate to sexual abuse

  • It is probably far more difficult to lead children to make false allegations against someone they know and love (e.g., a parent) than it is to lead them to make such allegations against a stranger (e.g., Sam Stone)

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Suggestibility is NOT a UNIDIRECTIONAL phenomenon

  • Children can be ‘led’ in more than one direction

  • Some non-abused children can be led to make false allegations of sexual abuse

  • It is also true that sexually abused children can be led to deny or minimize their abuse. In fact, this appears to be far more likely than non-abused children being led to falsely claim they were sexually abused

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  • Age! (most reliable predictor of suggestibility)

  • Time span between event and interview (‘retention interval’)

  • Interviewer bias

  • Asking leading questions repeatedly

  • Question type: open-ended; “wh” questions; option-posing; leading

  • Stereotyping

  • Encouraging guessing and imagining

  • Social pressure, e.g., “Your mom told me ______”

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