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Book Review - The Suggestibility of Childrens Recollections

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 2000, Volume 17, pages 189-192. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Suggestibility of Children's Recollections: Implications for Eyewitness Testimony. 

John Doris. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

This book, published by the American Psychological Association, is a compilation of essays, commentaries, and empirical research studies presented at the 1991 Cornell Conference on the Suggestibility of Children’s Recollections. The conference was an attempt to wade through the seemingly contradictory findings of various memory researchers and arrive at some consensus on important questions. These included (1) how accurate are the testimonies of child witnesses in terms of events (2) do children misinterpret neutral events (3) under what conditions are inaccuracy and misperception more likely to occur? The editor admits, however, that this goal was only partially accomplished in that confusion and contradiction still remain. Unfortunately, the book lacks a final summarizing chapter that would identify the points of consensus versus disagreement.

Readers of this volume of almost 200 pages are treated to a variety of empirical research vignettes of primarily staged events under laboratory conditions to which children of various ages (pre-adolescents) are exposed. Findings aside, the creativity of the research designs alone make for interesting reading.

Perhaps the major asset of the book is the identification of the many methodological obstacles inherent in research of this kind. Just trying to control for the numerous ecological and demographic variables that influence memory encoding, recall, and interpretation is, indeed, a daunting task. These variables might loosely be categorized as child witness variables (e.g. developmental level, participant vs. observer, level of arousal) and interview context variables (e.g. interviewer skills and qualities, time and place of interview). Reliability of findings is easily compromised in that replicating similar studies that control for the same variables is difficult to achieve.

The authors admit, too, that there is the major question of “ecological validity” (closely akin to the concept of external validity), that is, how generalizable are the findings of a laboratory experiment to an actual target population? Ceci highlights this issue in his discussion of child sexual abuse cases, reminding us that these traumatic conditions, which may include bodily injury, threats, and sexual arousal, cannot be duplicated artificially.

In their discussion, Goodman and Clarke-Stewart attempt to explore the issue of children’s suggestibility in relation to sexual abuse. Since they could not design a real life abuse situation, they report on a simulated situation (children undergoing a physical examination by a pediatrician) and then built in features of child abuse investigations. Their research highlights the complex task of assisting child witnesses to disclose their information. In follow-up interviews with the children the majority failed to reveal that genital/anal touching had been part of the medical experience. More of the subjects were able to disclose upon specific questioning. However, even with the additional prompting “the children failed to disclose it 64% of the time, whereas the chance of obtaining a false report of genital/anal touching was only 1%, even when leading questions were asked.” (P. 99).

This, of course, highlights the dilemma that investigators face in questioning children. On the one hand it appeared that “leading questions were often necessary to elicit essential information” and that children were more likely to disclose this information when the interviewer made “strong and persistent” suggestions.

On the disadvantaged side, of course, is the possibility that leading questions might elicit inaccurate information and/or misinterpretation of the events. However, the research suggests that susceptibility to manipulation is more likely in non-sexual abuse versus sexual abuse scenarios In addition, Goodman and Clarke-Stewart’s review suggests that children are more likely to be swayed by interviewer suggestions when they are younger, when they are questioned after a long delay, when they feel intimidated by the interviewer, when the interviewer makes strong and repeated suggestions, and when another interviewer makes similar suggestions. It appears that scenarios in which children are most likely to disclose accurate information is in the presence of a non-threatening interviewer who asks questions that the child can easily comprehend.

Perhaps one of the most important discussion for readers of the CSJ is Douglas Peters’ chapter on the influence of stress and arousal. His research concludes with the statement that “heightened arousal never increased the recognition of recall accuracy of subjects. …. {the belief, widely held by judges and jurors}….that high arousal facilitates the eyewitness accuracy of children does not appear to rest on solid empirical ground.” (P. 75) This statement is supports statements made by trauma researchers such as van der Kolk that high stress levels flood the body and brain with cortisol, thereby inhibiting important brain structures that store and later retrieve memory components of traumatic events. This argues against the claims made by false memory proponents that high arousal events (specifically child sexual abuse) would be more likely (rather than less likely) to be remembered.

An overall conclusion of the book is that the experimental conditions, and most particularly interviewer skills and qualities, affect children’s testimony. For instance, as one might imagine, there appears to be an inverse relationship between accuracy of recall and delay of questioning. The potential for intervening variables to influence a child’s memory and perception are increased when there is a long delay before interviewing a child witness. The place where the child is interviewed is also important. While contexts resembling the original event may elicit more accurate information, this accuracy may be compromised if the context elicits negative feelings (e.g. a police station). The nature of questions asked is also critical. While many researchers found that specific and often closed-ended questions elicited more information, accuracy did not necessarily improve. Choice of language and repetition of questions were also found to affect children’s reports.

In an effort to provide a more empirical way of assessing validity, Raskin and Esplin designed an instrument known as the Criteria-Based Content Analysis (CBCA), to assess the child’s motivation in providing the sought-after information. They propose that this variable, too, i.e. motivation, may color the child’s interpretation or accuracy of events. The validity and reliability of this instrument was challenged in subsequent commentaries.

One of the areas I found lacking in the book was a discussion of the types of memory that are currently being examined and discussed in the professional literature -- working memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. There is also no discussion of how right brain versus left brain information processing might influence childhood recollections, e.g. how traumatic memories may continue to “reside” in the body and get “reenacted” nonverbally. Granted, under laboratory conditions these children could not be traumatically exposed; however, a theoretical discussion of relevant findings from the field of neuroscience would have rounded out this volume. In this vein, I was hopeful as I read the chapter by Brainard and Ornstein on “Children’s memory for witnessed events: the developmental backdrop” as it seemed to promise more elaboration of the contribution of neurophysiological aspects. In this I was disappointed. Although they began with the promising statement, “Children cannot provide information about events that cannot be remembered,” (P. 10) they did not follow-through with what that might mean. Trauma researchers have demonstrated how memories unconsciously experienced and encoded are “remembered” by the body and how they push for expression through the clinical phenomenon known as “the return of the repressed.”

In his concluding remarks chapter, Davies notes that one of the themes missing from the book is conformity – “the tendency of the witness to conform to the majority even when these are at variance with the person’s own initial perceptions. Readers of this journal are, perhaps, more acquainted than most with the powerful factors that influence people to deny their own perceptions in favor of the viewpoints of others under particular conditions.

While these and other studies in the book do not lay to rest all the questions regarding children’s testimony, they do identify issues that need to be considered when questioning children. I believe the book is not only a good reference for professionals involved in forensic work but also for clinicians working with children as the book helps to illuminate issues of valid memory recall and reporting.

Doni Whitsett, Ph.D., LCSW

Adjunct Associate Professor

USC School of Social Work, Los Angeles, CA

Private Practice, Encino, CA

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 17 2000