False Beliefs Among Preschoolers Lead to False Child Abuse Allegations

False accusations from a young child are as puzzling as they are troubling.

Making them even more concerning is that they’re usually the result of an irresponsible adult reinforcing the false allegation. Sometimes when a preschooler is misguided to perpetuate an untruth, it is done so nefariously.

That isn’t always the case though. In many instances, it’s a lack of understanding of how to contextualize and make sense of a young child’s thought processes on the part of the CPS social worker and others that leads to a false allegation.

For instance, in the research paper “The Possible Role of Source Misattribution in the Creation of False Beliefs Among Preschoolers,” we see how techniques for eliciting information from a preschooler can give rise to false accusations. (See Stephen J. Ceci, Elizabeth F. Loftus, Michelle D. Leichtman, Maggie Bruck, The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Vol. XLII, No. 4, October 1994 304-320.)

In referencing the findings of this paper, we’ll find that the onus is on the professionals involved in the information-gathering process to differentiate fact from fiction. There are crucial factors to consider when utilizing the various approaches to encourage preschoolers to report their stories of abuse. Always, though, investigators need to be cognizant of the possibility of “source misattribution” when attempting to obtain an accurate statement from a preschooler.

Delving Into Source Misattribution

Source misattribution is what happens when a person can’t remember where the any information in their head, or their memories, comes from.

Upon performing some baseline research, you’ll see that this issue is linked to an accurate assessment of the reliability of the information. As time passes, it becomes harder for a person to decipher whether something in our brain (such as a thought, feeling, or image) comes from our actual memory, which is a primary source, or someone else’s description—a secondary source.

Another factor in play is imagination inflation. Repeatedly imagining an event that didn’t happen can make someone surer that it really did take place.

This imagined information can be stored in our memory and can be recalled like it was something that genuinely occurred.

Studies show how this problem directly impacts the validity of eyewitness statements coming from people of all ages. However, it can be uniquely prevalent in the minds and testimony of preschoolers.

Source Misattribution Affects Preschoolers More Than Older Kids

Techniques such as using leading questions when interviewing a child are often used to elicit stories of abuse from preschoolers.

This specific approach isn’t allowed during direct examinations of adults for a reason. Yet, this method is used on preschool children—who are more susceptible to source misattribution than anyone else. They are also incredibly suggestible.

While this approach might get preschoolers to come forth with truthful stories of abuse, it can also convince non-abused children they’ve experienced something that never happened. In fact, even child as old as nine can have a hard time differentiating between acts they witness and what they imagined. This can be even more challenging for preschool children.

It is Up to the Professionals to do Their Job Right

Given the susceptibility of preschoolers to source misattribution, it’s up to those interviewing them to safeguarding against the risk of its occurrence tainting the results of the investigation.

One finding from the research that’s particularly alarming is that the more sessions the children were subjected to, the more they’d make a false statement. This is something else that investigating social workers must consider when trying to rouse stories of abuse from preschoolers.

Unfortunately, adults struggle with objectivity in these situations. The research cited shows that adult subjects never doubted the validity of false narratives given by preschoolers.

Some investigating social workers get too caught up in the stories of abuse to pay attention to problems with source misattribution.

Defending Yourself Against All Aspects of a False Allegation

You don’t deserve to have your life ruined for something you never did. You need to fight tooth and nail to ensure your reputation and rights remain unscathed. That means attacking the credibility of a false accusation from every angle, including improper methods used to elicit untrue allegations.