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Important changes in the legal system to deal with abuse and violence meted on children, allowed children to offer uncorroborated testimony in sexual abuse cases. As a result, more preschoolers are allowed to provide statements in criminal cases where they are often the victims. In particular, in cases of sexual abuse involving a child, the child is allowed to testify both as the victim and as a witness.
However, in the recent past, the question of reliability and credibility of children’s report has raised fundamental concerns especially when there is little medical evidence or adult eyewitness testimony. In such cases, the defense normally argues that, suggestive repeated interviews by the law enforcement officers and parents influence children witness reports.
Although some previous studies highlight the strengths of the memories of children, most studies highlight the weaknesses of young children’s memories. This implies that their memories, and by extension, their reports can be modified by suggestions of the interviewers. Accordingly, repeated interviews about a true or false event affect the accuracy and reliability of children’s reports (Bruck, Ceci, & Hembrooke, 2002, p. 520).
Research on the young children’s suggestibility provides intriguing insights with regard to how contextual factors children’s reports. Suggestive interviewer techniques have deleterious effects on the memory of the children.
The Main Findings of the Articles
Suggestibility in children is more pronounced in younger children than in older children. Bruck et al. study involved a review of previous research in assessing the issues of reliability and credibility of preschool children reports during repeated interviews (2002, p. 527). The study reviewed interviews that involved suggestive and non-suggestive techniques with sixteen preschoolers.
The interviews comprised of five repeated sessions with two true events and two fictional events being addressed using both suggestive and non-suggestive techniques. For interview one, no suggestive techniques were used while, interviews two and three employed suggestive techniques.
Interview four involved use of a puppet to interview the children while interview five involved a different interviewer. In all the interviews, the children were required to give a full account of the events.
According to the results, one fictitious and one true event produced positive outcomes. Similarly, one fictitious event and one true event produced negative outcomes (Bruck et al., 2002, p. 539). From these results, the authors concluded that false and true narratives produce similar assent results in all suggestive interviews.
The major finding of this article is that suggestive interviewing influences a child’s responses: increased assents and fantastic details, for both false and true events (Bruck et al., 2002, p. 548). Thus, it is difficult to determine the accuracy of children’s reports in suggestive interviews.
In contrast, Principe, Kanaya, Ceci, and Singh examined how preschoolers respond to erroneous rumors circulated by an adult. In this study, an adult circulated a rumor over an event not directly experienced by the children to a quarter of the children (2006, p.244).
The second quarter comprised of the friends of the first group while the third quarter never overheard the rumor at all. The remaining group had an experience of the event suggested by the rumor.
After one week, suggestive and neutral interviews produced revealing results; results from suggestive interviews established that the group that overheard the rumor from their friends or adult conversation reported that they experienced the event much like those who experienced it.
From these results, the researchers made the finding that discussion of a rumored event among peers significantly influences not only the preschooler’s account of an event but also their beliefs about the nature of the event (Principe et al., 2006, p. 247).
Additionally, the children who overheard the rumors from their friends produced more elaborate narratives of the rumored event than those who overheard it from the adult. This implies that children are likely to distort information received from their peers than information received from adults.
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Implications of the Findings
These findings have fundamental implications on the legal justice system. Suggestive interview techniques have a powerful impact on children’s reporting patterns. The results of Bruck et al. best illustrates this; interviews involving suggestive techniques produced similar outcomes for both false and true events i.e. that of seeing a thief in their school (2002, p. 535).
Thus, when preschoolers are interviewed using suggestive interviewing techniques, they are likely to give false reports. This has serious legal consequences as false allegations can result to injustices.
Furthermore, according to Principe et al., false rumors profoundly influence children’s beliefs about the rumored event (2006, p.245). Thus, rumors have potential consequences on children’s suggestibility and by extension the reliability of their reports.
Nonetheless, the children’s report can be highly accurate in the absence of suggestive interrogation. The results from the articles indicate that preschool children can give accurate and reliable reports in the absence of suggestive interrogation techniques or rumor circulation. Goldstein highlights the process of child psychological development with respect to cognition, psychological and emotional development (2004, p. 134).
Principe et al. note that, children are prone to inaccurate information circulated by peers or adults. This suggests that younger children influence their memory or cognition of the event, which contributes to suggestibility.
According to Goldstein, developmental differences in children’s memory affect the degree to which they accurately store and retrieve information (2004, p. 142). Thus, suggestive interviews affect children’s memory, which contribute to suggestibility in children.
The results of Bruck et al. study reveal that repeated suggestive interviews results to false reports being represented as true (2002, p. 551). In the study, the children underwent repeated suggestive interviewing regarding true and fictitious events i.e. that of seeing a thief in the daycare. With each suggestive interview, the false narratives became more common and more engrained in the children’s memory.
By the third interview, the details, dialogue statements, and emotional expressions of the false narratives were similar to those of the true narratives. The researchers noted that, with each interview, the children included new additional details to their false narratives (fantastical details and exaggerations) compared to the true narratives (Bruck et al., 2002, p. 548). Thus, false narratives expanded with each interview.
This indicates that repeated suggestive interviewing, over time, will make the children incorporate the suggestions into their memories. This reflects an interaction between the cognitive (memory) and social aspects of a child’s development (Goldstein, 2004, p.143).
Thus, the children start by complying to the suggestions at first but with further interrogation on the same; they incorporate the information into their memories resulting to false reports.
Evidence from Bruck et al. and Principe et al. research studies indicates that, suggestive interviewing techniques has a significant influence on children’s memory, and by extension, the accuracy of their reports. However, the reliability of the children’s reports is largely related to interviewing techniques than on the children’s memory.
Suggestive techniques influence suggestibility in children. This finding has legal implications as the defense or the prosecution can use the children’s testimony to discredit each other based on the mode of interrogation. Future research should focus on how the severity of suggestive interviews influences the children’s suggestibility and reliability of their reports. This will be pivotal in preventing injustices in the courts of law.
Bruck, M., Ceci, S., & Hembrooke, H. (2002). The Nature of Children’s true and false Narratives. Developmental Review, 22, 520–554.
Goldstein, B. (2004). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. New York: Wadsworth Publishing. Pp. 134-143
Principe, G., Kanaya, T., Ceci, S., & Singh, M. (2006). Believing Is Seeing: How Rumors Can Engender False Memories In Preschoolers. J. Of Psychological Science, 17(3), Pp. 243-247