Nothing But the Truth Suggestibility of Child Witnesses

The credibility of children's accounts is often challenged on the grounds that they are especially vulnerable to suggestion (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995). Initial laboratory-based research appeared to produce inconsistent findings regarding the suggestibility of young children, however. Goodman and her colleagues have shown that children as young as 3 to 4 years of age can successfully resist misleading questions suggesting actions that are very different from those that have occurred or been witnessed

(Goodman & Aman, 1990; Goodman et al., 1987; Goodman, Bottoms, Schwartz-Kenney, & Rudy, 1991; Goodman, Hirschman, Hepps, & Rudy, 1991; Goodman, Rudy, Bottoms, & Aman, 1990; Goodman, Wilson, Hazan, & Reed, 1989). In other laboratory settings, however, preschoolers have appeared especially susceptible to suggestion (e.g., Ceci et al., 1987a, 1987b; King & Yuille, 1987; Toglia, Ceci, & Ross, 1989; see McAuliff, Kovera, & Viswesvaran, 1998, for a review). Indeed, children may, under certain conditions, come to provide elaborate accounts of entire events that have never been experienced (e.g., Ceci, Huffman, Smith, & Loftus, 1994; Ceci, Loftus, Leichtman, & Bruck, 1994; Strange et al., 2003). Such findings are not limited to children, however, with several studies demonstrating that adults too may come to produce detailed "memories" of entirely false events (e.g., Garry, Manning, Loftus, & Sherman, 1996; Hyman, Husband, & Billings, 1995; Loftus & Pickrell, 1995).

The apparently contradictory findings regarding children's suggestibility may be resolved by examining methodological differences in both the manipulation and measurement of suggestibility and reliability. Suggestibility is multiply determined by cognitive, social, motivational, and individual difference variables. Suggestive techniques may include instructions from the interviewer to pretend, draw, or imagine what might have happened, introduction of information by the interviewer that has not been reported by the child, and pressure to provide a response or comply with propositions made by the interviewer (e.g., telling children they will feel better if they tell, alluding to statements made by other children, introduction of stereotypes about the alleged perpetrator or descriptions of him/her as "bad" and "needing to be punished"), and repetitive questioning over a series of interviews with encouragement to speculate about what might have happened. Laboratory-based research has demonstrated that there are valid reasons for skepticism regarding the reliability of children's responses in these circumstances (e.g., Garven, Wood, Malpass & Shaw, 1998; Leichtman & Ceci, 1995).

As discussed earlier, source-monitoring errors may also lead children to inaccurately describe their experiences. Children's sensitivity to the status and knowledge of the interviewer may also foster compliance with suggestive techniques, because they misunderstand the purpose of the interviewer's statements, assume that the interviewer has superior knowledge, or simply want to be cooperative. When interviewers adequately prepare children for their role as experts, empower them to correct interviewers, and admit that they "don't know" some answers, and when interviewers avoid asking children to pretend or imagine, avoid being coercive, do not repeat misleading questions within the interview, and keep children focused on central details of personally experienced events, children are able to resist misleading questions and provide meaningful and accurate accounts of their experiences (Pipe et al., 2004).

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