Eyewitness memory has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, as organizations such as the Innocence Project suggest it was key information in as many as 75% of wrongful convictions in states. -United. Unfortunately, human memory doesn’t work like a video camera recording a scene, allowing you to read memories exactly as they happened. Instead, memories must be rebuilt each time they are used, like putting together a puzzle. All sorts of things can influence this rebuilding process, from new information you learn after the event to the simple passage of time.
Adults are bad enough at providing accurate testimony, due to issues with the reconstructive nature of memory as well as how memories can be influenced by new information and decay over time. Given these limits of human memory, what do children do? The reliability of child witnesses is particularly important to understand given the large number of children who are involved in the justice system each year. In cases involving child witnesses, the child’s testimony is often the only evidence available, so obtaining reliable accounts may be the only way to keep dangerous offenders off the streets.
I’m a professor of psychology at Clemson University and I do research on children’s eyewitness memory. In my new book “Are Children Reliable Witnesses?” I explore what can influence the accuracy of children’s testimonies, for better or for worse. Research shows that children can be reliable witnesses, but it depends on both the child and the situation.
Get child witnesses to tell their stories
Typically, police begin a forensic interview by asking witnesses, including children, to freely recall everything they remember about the event. During this stage of the interview, even young children can be as specific as adults, but they often miss many details.
To get as much information as possible, the police then often start asking different types of questions. Open-ended questions – for example, “Tell me more about what happened” – generate more precise and consistent answers than any other type.
Questions that include an option – like “Was he tall?” – can increase the amount of information provided by a witness, but often lead children to answer questions to which they do not know the answer. The overall accuracy of their memories generally decreases when children are asked these kinds of questions.
If interviewers have difficulty getting information from young children, they can use leading questions that suggest details the child has not yet mentioned, such as asking about touching when the child is not. didn’t mention physical contact. Often young children comply with the interviewer’s suggestion even if it is wrong. They can then incorporate this misinformation into their subsequent accounts of the crime.
Sticking to a structured interview format makes interviewers less likely to fall back on questions that are leading or present limited options.
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development provides an evidence-based protocol that investigators can follow when working with young witnesses. This eliminates some guesswork on the part of the interviewer and ensures that open-ended prompts are used before returning to more focused questions. It also guides interviewers to include hands-on interviewing and relationship building, both of which improve interview performance, increasing the quality and quantity of information provided.
However, investigators need regular training workshops to maintain best practices.
Implementation of better alignment procedures
After a child witness describes an alleged perpetrator to authorities, the child may be asked to browse through a series of photos. Usually the queue contains one person the police consider a suspect as well as several people the police know are innocent.
Laboratory research suggests that children as young as 6 years old can be as accurate as adults when confronted with a composition containing the alleged perpetrator, typically achieving accuracy rates of at least 60%. However, when shown a range that does not include the target, children are much more likely than adults to make a false identification. The researchers suspect that children feel compelled to make a selection and are less aware of the potential consequences of false identifications.
One method that works to reduce false identification rates is to add an additional photo consisting of a silhouette with a question mark to the lineup. In this situation, children are told to point to the silhouette card if they do not see the target in the lineup. In several studies, the silhouette map reduced false identifications without reducing the likelihood of a witness making a correct identification in the queue.
When children are better witnesses than adults
Children are more vulnerable to outside pressures, such as leading questions. And their memories are more likely to be tainted by post-event misinformation. But they are less likely than adults to have their interpretation of an event influenced by assumptions, past experiences, prior knowledge or stereotypes.
For example, adults in research studies are more likely than children to recall that a nonviolent bank robbery involved a weapon. It is also more common for adults to incorrectly report having read a word on a list of words centered on a particular topic. For example, if the list included the words “dream”, “pillow”, “blanket”, and “bed”, then adults would be more likely than children to remember that “sleep” was also on the list.
This area of research needs further exploration, but it appears that when specific information cannot be remembered, adult memories are often based on essential information – i.e. the overall structure, but not the details. specific – more than those of children. This tendency may make adults more prone to spontaneous false memories than children. However, children are even more vulnerable to externally induced false memories, such as those arising from leading questions or from learning new information after the event.
Unfortunately, every year in the United States, thousands of criminal cases rely on the testimony of children to bring charges. Understanding the wide range of factors that can affect the memory of these young witnesses is of utmost importance.