Understanding the Suggestibility of Children of Different Ages

Pointing a Child Understanding the Suggestibility of Children of Different Ages

Suggestive questioning occurs when an interviewer of a child inserts in his interview questions a persistent suggestion as well as an interpretation of a particular event. This has a significant negative effect on the child’s ability to interpret or recall that event. [Source]

To put it simply, suggestive questioning, particularly in a forensic interview of a child conducted as part of a child abuse investigation, can result in a child “recalling” an event that never actually occurred. There is a wide range of reasons for this, from biological stress factors to social pressure to positive or negative reinforcement.

Children are, to varying degrees, susceptible to acquiescing to an interviewer’s suggestions. As a general rule, the younger child the more suggestible the child is likely to be.

An analysis of the phenomenon of child suggestibility investigated how easily children can be made to believe that they have said or done something. The researcher found that two different age groups experienced suggestibility through two very distinct mechanisms. (See Giuliana Mazzoni. Memory suggestibility and metacognition in child eyewitness testimony: The roles of source monitoring and self-efficacy. European Journal of Psychology of Education. 1998, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 43-60.)

“Children can easily be made to believe that they have seen or experienced something that they never did. This phenomenon is called the misinformation effect,” reads the study’s abstract. The researched examined “the mechanisms underlying the misinformation effect in 6 and 9-year-old children, by investigating the influence of two metacognitive variables, source monitoring, and self-efficacy, on child suggestibility.” The researcher’s first experiment “demonstrated that source monitoring is related to memory suggestibility in younger children, whereas self-efficacy plays a role in suggestibility mainly in older children.” The researcher’s second experiment “confirmed that the misinformation effect in younger children was mainly due to genuine memory errors, whereas in older children it was mainly due to acceptance of the misleading information.”

In other words, the study indicates that children of different ages are suggestible for different reasons. Younger children are suggestible because they don’t know where the information in their head or their memories actually came from to begin with, and older children simply tended to accept misleading or leading information.

So what exactly are “source monitoring” and “self-efficacy,” and what makes them so different from one another?

What is Source Monitoring?

You can find all sorts of websites that try to define source monitoring, abbreviated as SM. Here’s one description of source monitoring that’s quite convoluted. This definition of source monitoring is pretty good: “Source monitoring is an unconscious mental test that humans perform in order to determine if a memory is ‘real’ and accurate as opposed to being from a source like a dream or a movie.” This definition of source monitoring is even simpler: “This determines the origin of a person’s memories, beliefs and knowledge. Also called reality monitoring.” Source monitoring is crucial when trying to answer the question: How do you know what you know?

(I’m reminded of a line from the movie JFK in which a character says, “How do you know who your daddy is? Cause your mama told you so.”)

When it comes to the relation between source monitoring and its relevancy to children of different ages, the above study found that source monitoring is more related to the suggestibility of younger children, rather than older children.

What is Self-Efficacy?

Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their own abilities, particularly abilities that require one to meet a particular challenge or complete a specific task properly. Self-efficacy is related to self-worth and self-esteem, but shouldn’t be synonymous with those terms. [Source]

When it comes to memory or giving an account of one’s memory, it refers to whether a person believes themselves or another person to be more reliable in giving an account of an event.

When it comes to the relation between self-efficacy and its relevancy to children of different ages, the above study found that source monitoring is related to the suggestibility of older children, rather than younger children.

Both source monitoring and self-efficacy are substantial factors that can impact a child’s ability to recall accurate memories, but both mechanisms cause suggestibility for different ages. This should be considered when defending oneself against false allegations of child abuse. Obviously, the agency accusing you believes the minor made a credible report of child abuse. If the report is inaccurate, you might be in a situation where you’ll want to explain how and why the child made an inaccurate report of abuse.

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