Studies Reveal Suggestibility Of Very Young as Witnesses
Published: June 11, 1993
(Page 2 of 2)
When the question was posed in a leading fashion, using the child's own word for genitals, 70 percent of children who had received no genital exam indicated incorrectly that the doctor had touched their genitals. Skewing of Memories
The children are not being intentionally misleading, Dr. Ceci said, but are simply very poor at recalling and explaining what happened.
That uncertainty may partly explain why adults who have a fixed idea of what has happened to a child can often get the child to agree. In another study by Dr. Ceci and his colleagues, interviewers were misled about details of a game played by preschool children. The interviewers eventually got a third of 3- and 4-year-olds and 18 percent of 5- and 6-year-olds to corroborate at least one of the things the interviewers mistakenly believed had happened.
The very stressfulness of an event like sexual abuse can make children give false reports. "If the original situation was very stressful, it can narrow a child's perception so that later memories won't be as accurate," said Dr. Douglas Peters, a psychologist at the University of North Dakota, whose research shows that distressing situations increase the mistakes children make in recounting them.
Earlier studies of young children's suggestibility led to the conclusion that they could be swayed only about minor details, not the main facts of what had happened to them. But his review of the recent data has led Dr. Ceci to a different conclusion. Changes Recommended
"We find nothing in a child's memory is impervious to being tainted by an adult's repeated suggestions," Dr. Ceci said. "We find from reading transcripts of investigations that in many sex-abuse cases the adults not only pursued a hypothesis about what happened, but were sometimes even coercive in getting children to agree. They went far beyond anything we could do ethically as researchers."
Dr. Ceci and Dr. Bruck, in an article to appear in the fall in a report by the Society for Research in Child Development, recommend that people investigating possible cases of child abuse change their procedures, for example, by avoiding repeated suggestions or putting much emphasis on evidence from anatomical dolls.
"The bottom line is that even very young children can give accurate accounts if the interviewers haven't usurped their memory through repeated suggestive or leading questions," Dr. Ceci said. "Interviewers ought to safeguard against this by testing at least one alternative plausible hypothesis about what happened. If they fail to do this, they're in danger of confirming their own bias by unduly influencing and distorting the child's memory."
But other researchers feel that the cautions are misplaced. "Research that focuses only on children's suggestibility gives only part of the picture," Dr. Goodman said. Sexually abused children are often "very reluctant to admit it," she said, adding, "If your recommendations are based only on avoiding suggesting things to children, it runs the risk of tipping the balance too far, so you get many fewer disclosures of abuse." A Sense of Urgency
Citing a study in which 43 percent of young children diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases denied having been sexually abused, Dr. Lucy Berliner, director of research at the Harborview Sexual Assault Center in Seattle, said: "Sometimes your sense of urgency with kids you know are victims makes you feel you need to do whatever is necessary to help the child tell what happened. If that leads to a coercive approach, it's motivated by concern."
Dr. Berliner added: "If you've ever tried to interview a 4-year-old about a sensitive topic, you'll see it's rarely productive just to ask, 'Is there anything you want to tell me about?' That's what police or caseworkers face. They argue that we'll never find out anything if we can't ask specific questions."
Photo: A study by Dr. Stephen Ceci, a psychologist at Cornell University, found that repetition may lead some young children to concoct stories. He is shown in front of a two-way mirror where he interviews patients. (Peter Freed) (pg. A23) Chart: "How the Questions Become the Answers" Excerpts from interviews of a 4-year-old boy to whom the interviewer said each week for 11 consecutive weeks: "You went to the hospital because you finger got caught in a mousetrap. Did this ever happen to you?" FIRST INTERVIEW: "No. I've never been to the hospital." SECOND INTERVIEW: "Yes. I cried." THIRD INTERVIEW: "Yes. My mom went to the hospital with me." FOURTH INTERVIEW: "Yes, I remember. It felt like a cut." FIFTH INTERVIEW: "Yes." [ Pointing to index finger. ] ELEVENTH INTERVIEW: "Uh huh. . . . My daddy, mommy and my brother [ took me to the hospital ] in our van . . . The hospital gave me . . . a little bandage, and it was right here." [ Pointing to index finger. ] The interviewer then asked, "How did it happen?" "I was looking and then I didn't see what I was doing and it [ finger ] got in there somehow . . . The mousetrap was in our house because there's a mouse in our house . . . The mousetrap is down in the basement, next to the firewood. . . . I was playing a game called 'Operation' and then I went downstairs and said to Dad, 'I want to eat lunch,' and then it got stuck in the mousetrap. . . . My daddy was down in the basement collecting firewood. . . . [ My brother ] pushed me [ into the mousetrap. ] . . . It happened yesterday. The mouse was in my house yesterday. I caught my finger in it yesterday. I went to the hospital yesterday." (Source: Dr. Stephen J. Ceci/Cornell) (pg. A23)