• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Tuesday 13th May, 2008

Getting closer to the truth about false memories

Children do not make the best witnesses in legal proceedings. They can be so highly suggestible that leading questions produce “false memories”. In other words, they can be made to believe that fictitious events actually occurred or that the significance others attach to what they remember must be true. Some high profile cases in the US in which children’s testimony was relied upon to convict adults of sexual abuse led to a flurry of research on false memories. Much of the work simulated situations in which child witnesses were interviewed, and the evidence it generated strongly supported the view that children are susceptible to false memories under particular conditions. Some courts have since accepted children’s vulnerability to false memories as being beyond doubt, and expert witnesses are no longer routinely called upon to confirm the science behind the argument. The research has also led to the development of interview styles that are more likely to elicit reliable information from children. The previous work has generally shown that children are much more susceptible to false memories than are adults. And lawyers will often use such findings in their efforts to persuade juries to give more credence to an adult’s recollection of events than to a child’s. However, not all research evidence suggests that adults’ memories are any more accurate than children’s, and work is being done to distinguish between the aspects of memory that may be more or less pliable with the passage of time. In a recent issue of Psychological Bulletin, a team from Cornell University’s Department of Human Development led by Professor Charles Brainerd, provide a detailed review of recent research that suggests that, under certain conditions, children become more susceptible to false memories as they reach adulthood. As children develop, they learn to put information into categories. Rather than remember exact words, objects or events, they ignore some of the detail and focus on the gist or general significance. So when there are meaningful connections among events, adults can be prone to false memories because what they recall is the gist rather than the exact detail. It’s not yet clear what this increase in false memory over time means for future trials. Although researchers have identified the phenomenon, they have yet to test it under conditions similar to those experienced by real witnesses. Brainerd and his colleagues suggest that future experiments should ask participants to recall information that might be upsetting just as witnesses in actual trials are often asked to do. The researchers also recommend experiments that simulate eyewitness identification (using photo spreads or lineups) and involve children with learning disabilities, attention deficits, and other disabilities on the basis that child witnesses are more likely to be disabled than are children in general.• Summary of “Developmental Reversals in False Memory: A review of data and theory” by C. J. Brainerd, V. F. Reyna, and S. J. Ceci in Psychological Bulletin Back to Archives

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