Comparing Preschoolers' Recall of Experienced vs Non-Experienced Events

Child Reading a Book

A study sought to investigate how well a preschooler could report an experienced event as well as a non-experienced, more speculative event. Their findings were interesting when it came to the subject of using suggestive techniques to change the minds of the children. (See Martine B. Powell, Carolyn H. Jones, and Claire Campbell. A Comparison of Preschoolers’ Recall of Experienced Versus Non-experienced Events across Multiple Interviews. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 17: 935-952 (2003).)

“Preschool children’s recall of both experienced and non-experienced activities was examined across three interviews,” reads the summary of the study. “One hundred and six children aged 4 to 5 years (58 males, 48 females) from both low and high socioeconomic status areas participated in an event called the Deakin Activities, which consisted of two experienced activities. One or two days later, the children were asked to recall what happened in the two activities and an activity they had not experienced which was suggested to have occurred along with the experienced activities. Next, children were given false suggestions about one of the experienced (true-biased) activities and the non-experienced (false) activity. For the remaining experienced (true-unbiased) activity, no questions were asked.”

Around three and eight days later from when the activities were initially given, children were once again asked to recall all three of the activities in their own words, but highly suggestive techniques were used to encourage them.

The result? Regardless of the group, assent rates through true and false activities became a lot more identical after the first interview. Children’s narratives about the incorrect activity became very similar in their details and quality to their narratives about the actual activities throughout most of the interviews.

The rate of highly fantastic and importable details was much higher for the incorrect or false activity when compared to the real activities. Children from the study reported more of what the interviewer suggested to them when discussing the fake activity when compared to the real activities.

So what are the implications of this study in the context of false accusations of child abuse from preschoolers?

Preschoolers Are Highly Suggestable

When you look at the above study in the context of how children are often involved in the justice system, it begins to make a lot of sense why false accusations from preschoolers exist.

It’s not necessarily an issue of deliberate lying. Rather, preschoolers are extremely suggestible at that stage of life. One great example of this is the McMartin Preschool Trial.

What the McMartin Preschool Trial Taught Us About Preschoolers’ Suggestibility When Interviewed

The McMartin preschool trial was a sexual abuse case that took place in the 1980s in Los Angeles. The McMartin family, who operated the preschool, were charged with multiple sexual abuse charges, but all charges were dropped seven years later. The case is famous for being an example of day-care sex-abuse hysteria as well as interviewing tactics that lead child witnesses to accuse adults of sexual abuse that never took place.

The prosecutors in the McMartin case relied substantially on videotaped interviews with the children. These interviews are evidence of extremely leading questions that undermined the case. Jurors even publicly criticized the interview questions as extremely leading, not unlike the interview questions asked in the preschooler recall study. [Source: https://scholarworks.utep.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=james_wood]

Some of the questions and statements the interviewers presented the children in the McMartin case included:

  • "Did Paco take you somewhere in a helicopter?"
  • "Let’s see if you’re smart enough to remember what happened!"
  • "Thanks for telling me! You’re so smart!"

[Source]

In the aforementioned study, the preschoolers interviewed began to have difficulty recalling experienced and not experienced memories, blending the two together until they were quite similar. They were able to do this because of the leading questions and behavior of the interviewers. Similarly, the children who were interviewed in the McMartin case likely had difficulty deciphering what was speculation incited by the interviewers or an actual experienced event.

Because of this, it’s extremely difficult to ensure that a child abuse allegation from a preschooler is legitimate. Extreme caution must be taken during interviews to ensure that the child isn’t being led and eventually fuse their experienced and not experienced memories together.

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