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Children's Suggestibility and Memory

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  1. Children's Suggestibility and Memory

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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

  6. 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.


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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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 . . .

  13. 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. Q But she made you.

  14. Later in the same interview, after the child has denied‘kissing Kelly’s private parts’ Q Did it smell good? (referring to Kelly’s privates) A Shhh Q Her private parts? A I don’t know. Q Did it taste good? Did it taste like chocolate? A Ha, ha. No, I didn’t even do it . . .

  15. Child Interview (continued) Q You Wee Care kids seem so scared of her. A I wasn’t. I’m not even. . . Q But while you were there, were you real scared? A I don’t know. Q What was so frightening about her, what was so scary about her? A I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?

  16. 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).

  17. ARE CHILDREN “SUGGESTIBLE”? YES. Some children are suggestible—at least under certain circumstances Adults are, too—but generally less so than children under 10 or 11

  18. Suggestibility is not ‘Unidirectional’ • Children can sometimes be led to falsely claim abuse • Children can also be led to falsely deny abuse


  20. KEY SUGGESTIBILITY VARIABLES • 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 ______”

  21. AGE AT THE TIME OF THE INTERVIEWAFFECTS SUGGESTIBILITY • 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

  22. TIME SPAN AFFECTS MEMORY & SUGGESTIBILITY • 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

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

  24. “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

  25. 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)

  26. 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

  27. INTERVIEWER BIAS AFFECTS SUGGESTIBILITY • 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

  28. 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.

  29. QUESTION TYPE AFFECTS SUGGESTIBILITY • Suggestive/leading questioning-especially if done repeatedly-increases suggestibility

  30. 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

  31. 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?

  32. ASKING LEADING QUESTIONS ‘REPEATEDLY’ CAN INCREASE SUGGESTIBILITY • Repetitive suggestive questioning, even if only mildly suggestive, can increase suggestibility—especially if combined with other suggestibility factors

  33. ‘FREE RECALL’ IS SUPERIOR TO ‘RECOGNITION’ MEMORY • ‘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

  34. 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

  35. 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)

  36. The Problem with Option-Posing Questions

  37. 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)

  38. “OPTION-POSING QUESTIONS” OFTEN INVITE CONTRADICTORY STATEMENTS FROM CHILDREN • 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

  39. 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

  40. 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

  41. 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!

  42. 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

  43. STEREOTYPING (‘stereotype induction’) INCREASES SUGGESTIBILITY • 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

  44. ENCOURAGING ‘GUESSING’ AND ‘IMAGINING’ CAN INCREASE SUGGESTIBILITY • Guessing: Q Did 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”

  45. SOCIAL PRESSURE CAN INCREASE SUGGESTIBILITY • 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

  46. 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

  47. 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

  48. 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

  49. The “New Wave” in Suggestibility Research • Stephen Ceci (Cornell) and colleagues • Research designed to MAXIMIZE children’s suggestibility

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