Study Calls into Question Credibility of Young Children's Testimony

Preschoolers have difficulty distinguishing imagination from reality, particularly if asked about events some time after they occurred, which could have implications for eyewitness testimony, a researcher at Yale has found.

Amy Sussman, who conducted the study as a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology and whose article appears in the June issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, said that she designed the study because she was interested in children’s memory at different ages and in different contexts, particularly as it relates to eyewitness testimony.

Included in the research project were preschoolers, second graders, sixth graders and adults. The children and adults in the study engaged in some actions and imagined engaging in others. The activities ranged from demonstrating how to do things to touching or dressing up another person.

“I found that preschoolers performed significantly worse than sixth graders and adults (in distinguishing reality from imagination),” Sussman said. “Most importantly, children and adults had a tendency to believe an imagined action was a real one more than the reverse. This type of confusion is particularly problematic because it could lead to false accusations.” In fact, preschoolers’ ability to determine that an imagined event was only imagined was no better than chance one week after the event.

She said that in some of the more publicized cases of alleged child abuse a number of years ago, the children’s reports were probably being influenced through the questions of both the legal investigation and the children’s therapists. After a while, Sussman said, it appeared as though the children’s stories may have been conforming to the questions.

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