Children as witnesses – Can we believe them?

Children are less reliable eyewitnesses than adults. This is because their memories are less accurate and because they are more susceptible to suggestion. This opinion is widespread and has been endorsed in court cases. But is this always true? Or can children sometimes even be better witnesses than adults?

The Whisper von Brian Smithson via flickr

The Whisper von Brian Smithson via flickr

Two trials about repeated child sexual abuse that attracted intense media coverage took place during the late 1990s in Germany: the Montessori-trials and the Worms trials. Child testimonies were the only pieces of evidence in both trials. However, induced by suggestive pressure, these testimonies were erroneous: The well-meaning adults, who interviewed the children about their allegations, were so convinced about the occurrence of the abuse that they primarily aimed at finding supportive evidence for this idea during the interviews. To this end, they resorted to suggestive interviewing techniques: They repeated their questions and provided misleading cues until the children finally made the expected allegations. Numerous experiments confirmed the negative influence of erroneous information and suggestive questions on memory, especially in children. It is, for example, easier to convince younger children compared to older children about being abducted by a UFO by means of a fictitious newspaper article. But do these findings imply that one should generally not believe children and that children are bad witnesses?

No! If children disclose spontaneously and in their own words and if open questions (e.g., “Do you know why you are here?”, “Tell me more about that”) are used, child testimonies can be highly reliable. Recent memory experiments even show that children sometimes outperform adults. That is because adults tend to fill memory gaps with experience-based knowledge. Children, on the other hand, do not possess that much so-called script knowledge.

Scepticism towards child testimony is therefore warranted if it is likely that the child witness was exposed to suggestions. To assess the validity of a testimony it is thus necessary to thoroughly analyse the initial formation and development over time of the testimony (Was the child exposed to erroneous information?) and the circumstances of questioning (Were suggestive, misleading questions posed?). Children, just like adults, are not always reliable witnesses, but they certainly can be.

References:

Brackmann, N., Otgaar, H., Sauerland, M., & Merckelbach, H. (2015). Children are poor witnesses. Or are they? In Mind, 24, 1-6. (see http://www.in-mind.org/article/children-are-poor-witnesses-or-are-they)

Brainerd, C. J., Reyna, V. F., & Ceci, S. J. (2008). Developmental reversals in false memory: A review of data and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 134, 343-382. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.343

Written by Nathalie Brackmann, Alana C. Krix, and Melanie Sauerland. This blog was originally published in German at de.in-mind.org.

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