How Shall We Study Childrens False Memories

Although the conditions surrounding the prosecution of CSA have motivated research on children's false memories, it does not follow that the research should be restricted to designs that emulate those conditions (Reyna, 2004). That would greatly narrow the range of application of experimental findings and would not lead to the general explanatory principles that are the most important objectives of such research. Here, it is important to remind ourselves that the law's reliance on children's memory reports is not confined to CSA. Such reports supply evidence in many types of legal cases (e.g., arson, assault, domestic disputes, murder, production and sale of drugs, robbery), and CSA cases are only a small fraction of the total. For instance, defendants in capital murder cases have been convicted on the basis of children's recollections of events. One type of case, however, outnumbers all others combined: divorce and custody proceedings (McGough, 1993). The question of whether and under what conditions children are at heightened risk of making false-memory reports is pertinent to any legal proceeding in which children are witnesses, victims, or even defendants. In connection with cases in which children are defendants, which are normally juvenile court proceedings, it is well established that adult defendants are susceptible to false confessions that are stimulated by the highly suggestive questioning tactics that are used in police interrogations (Kassin, 1997). Child defendants are often subjected to the same types of interviewing tactics, especially when they are charged with serious crimes such as arson or murder (Armstrong, Milles, & Possley, 2001). If children's memories are more susceptible to the distorting influence of those tactics than adults', then reports that are obtained from child defendants are even more apt to be infected with false self-incrimination.

Because the legal ramifications of research on children's false memories extend far beyond CSA, research that is restricted to CSA-like conditions is of only limited use in the law. To illustrate, the question of whether children can have false memories of traumatic experiences involving their own bodies, which was the touchstone of early studies of children's false memories, is simply irrelevant in the vast preponderance of cases in which children are witnesses, victims, or defendants. What the law is most in need of is general principles and findings that are not bound by the specific situations in which children's memories are stored and which therefore can be applied in a broad range of legal cases. We now turn to those topics.

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