Do Children Have False Memories

Citing relevant research, state and explain your opinion of the reliability of the testimony of a 5 year old child who accuses an adult of serious sexual abuse. It’s very easy to look at children’s testimony from a psychologist or a researcher’s perspective, but how would we respond if we were faced with a situation where a 5 year old child is accusing an adult of serious sexual abuse?
Would we be quick to dismiss the strong accusation or would we examine the possibility of this event. In this essay evidence for and against the reliability of children’s testimony is evaluated, especially considering a delicate matter such as sexual abuse. It will start by outlining what developmental and cognitive psychologists have discovered to date about children’s memory capacity and how it differs from that of adults; then the focus will shift to literature on sexual abuse.
Memory or remembering operates like any other aspect of development studied, its development is gradual, and this goes to say that children without doubt, don’t possess the same ability to remember as adults. The digit p for memory seems to increase with age, so for example a child of 3yrs will remember about 2 words and a child of 4 will remember 3 words from a presented list of word, and these are likely to be the last words (recency effect( Meadows,1986).

There are three areas of memory that seem to show improvement in children as we progress through development: basic capacity, the amount of information that can be remembered in STM, children will develop strategies that will help transfer information into LTM and finally they will also have greater world knowledge; which means a greater context allowing for the integration of new information, therefore new memories. (Meadows, 1986) There are many reasons why children show these deficits in memory.
One of them is because they lack meta-cognition, basic beliefs and knowledge about memory, its dynamics, which is fundamental for understanding how information is learned. Children clearly don’t possess this meta-cognitive awareness to monitor past experiences and performance to update resource allocation strategies. (Castel, Humphreys, Lee, Balota and McCabe, 2011) This previous paragraphs were to convey the fact that children do have distinct abilities compared to adults, this tells us that their recall for witnessed events might lack in accuracy.
When we ask a child to give testimony for witnessing an event we are asking them to access their autobiographical memory, which includes a sketchy version of personal memories and experiences, diluted from all unnecessary details. This type of memory is highly subject to biases in attempting to maintain continuity and it often doesn’t follow the temporal frame. Can children accurately recall events that they experience in the past accurately or do they often develop false memories of events that never took place? Some studies show that children as young as 5 can remember events quite well even after a period of delay preceding recall. Flin, Boon, Knox and Bull (1992) gave children a talk on how to keep their feet clean, while the talk was happening an assistant staged tripping over and knocking over a side carousel. Recall was taken the day after the talk and 5 months later, similar to court proceedings. There was no relation found between age and amount of information recalled the following day, children age 6 recalled 17/ 26 items and adults recalled 18/26 items. However Flinn et al found that 5 months later 6 yr olds recall had decreased by 40 %.
This study shows that children can remember quite well, however those memories are not fully stored in LTM . This event however isn’t a real life event neither is it of distressing nature like most events children are called to testify for in court cases. This could justify the high recall even for the younger children. Research by Goodman, Hirschman, Hepps and Rudy (1991); Peterson and Whalen (2001) and many more agree that children can actually remember stressful events very well and without doubt sexual abuse of any kind is a stressful enough situation which victims should remember well.
Children can give accurate testimony following sexual victimisation, supported by evidence from allegations and high rate of omission errors instead of reporting unsupported events, (Birdrose & Goodman, 2000) More interestingly research has shown that children can easily develop false memories, known as memories of events that never took place (Loftus, 2004). A good example was -the Mc Martin trial . In this controversial trial a school teacher was accused of ritually abusing children.
The charges against the teacher were eventually dropped, as some of the children recalled very ambiguous events, such as being taken on an helicopter to a far away farm to witness a horse while it was beaten. It is believed that they were suggestively interviewed and then developed enough details to make these become real memories. (Schreiber et al, 2006). Prevalence information can strongly influence children’s recall, it seems that children start by considering whether the event is plausible, then proceed to develop thoughts and images about the events, which at that point become mistaken for real memories.
In an experiment Otgaar, Candel, Merckelbach and Wade (2009) exposed children age 7-8 and age 11-12 to a description of a real past experience and also that of a false past experience. The real experience was the child’s first day at school; the false one was a description of being abducted by an UFO, prevalence was given by giving them an article about the commonality of UFO abductions. The results showed that children again remembered accurately the real event, this is consistent with (Flin et al, 1992. ; some even were convinced they had been abducted, some even reported things not present in the story; such as being transported by a beam of blue light, clearly indicating formation of a false memory. 70% of younger children remembered being abducted. We cannot totally conclude that children’s memory for bizarre events is always false; however we can say that they can easily develop false memories for implausible events, this is more noticeable in younger child This still isn’t sufficient to answer the question of the reliability of a 5 yr old accusing an adult of abuse.
Research suggests that children place an important emphasis on script like representations, basically representations of how events are connected in a stereotypical way, based on prior knowledge of everyday activities, they may use this scripts to fill in details of events even when they are not part of the story, ( Mc Shane 1991). When a child is required to provide eye-witness accounts of what happened during an episode, even when it’s not as severe as sexual abuse, they need to be able to separate that instance from that in which they are questioned, things they have maybe seen and when they had spoken about it for the first time. Lloyd, Doydum and Newcombe, 2009), psychologist fear they are unable to do this. There is a great influence of prior knowledge on free recall, cued recall, recognition memory and source memory; sometimes children may rely on gist to make conclusions. Odegard, Cooper, Lampinen, Reyna and Brainard (2009) carried out an experiment where children attended 4 thematic birthday parties of fictional characters and were later interviewed regarding the events that took place, some which were generic and some which were specific to the theme of the party.
When interviewed using the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) protocol, older children did better than the younger ones at providing both thematic and generic events for the parties, this could be explained by the fact that they possess knowledge of the script of parties and they used this to reconstruct what happened; however this also led them to make more thematic source errors. It was also found that 45% of 5-6 year olds reported events that didn’t happen or mixed them up between the parties they attended.
This is consistent with the previous study in that younger children made more mistakes; Nonetheless this cannot tell us how can a five year old wrongly accuse someone of something they have never heard of or even seen, they don’t posses schemas for these neither do they know whether it’s good or bad. Or how can they develop a false memory of an act of sexual abuse unless they had experienced it. Leander, Christianson and Granhag (2007) examined the eyewitness of 8 children between the ages of 3-10, who had been sexually abused by an unfamiliar perpetrator who was the same in all cases.
They focused on the amount and type of information remembered and denial of the assault. The documentation of children’s testimony was found to be consistent with the confession of the perpetrator, picture evidence, medical examination and police evidence. They found that most children reported things that preceded the abuse and that only 21. 5% of what they reported was of the sexual act, the remaining was neutral information. They youngest child age 3 didn’t say much about both post and pre-abuse factors and only mentioned one fact of sexual nature.
The rate of denial and reluctance to report the act was high especially amongst younger children. In this case it was easier to believe that the abuse occurred because there were multiple victims, and enough evidence to give credibility to the children’s testimony. We can imagine that a five year old would not come to an adult saying’ I have been sexually abused’, they probably never eared those terms neither do they know the meaning. This is to say that testimony of abused children may be disconnected often not including any sexual facts, but we shouldn’t be too quick to discard it.
Hershkowits and Lanes (2007) found that younger children who don’t understand the concept of abuse are better able to disclose information as they are unlikely to have feelings of guilt and don’t understand the severity of abuse in society. Over the years there has been extensive work on interviewing techniques, Psychologists have developed interviewing techniques to effectively extrapolate information from children, therefore interviewing the child can reveal whether testimony is true or false. Children’s description of real events differs from that of false events.
In Hershkowitz (1999) children describing events that really happened provided longer and richer responses to open-ended prompts rather than focused ones. Children who are providing implausible accounts tend to rely of the suggestions of the interviewer and elaborate on them. The study also showed that younger children were more likely to recall implausible false events compared to older ones, so maybe false memories are not only created on the basis of event plausibility; perhaps if a 5 year old was giving a false account of abuse they would exhibit such characteristics.
Holcomb and Jacquin (2007) mock sexual abuse trial revealed that the defendant was more likely to be found guilty when a by stander witness was present, unlike when a victim-witness was present; however jurors were more likely to believe young children. Research also shows that children find it difficult to discuss having been sexually abused; many will go through phases of secrecy, helplessness and retraction (Summit, 1983). If a child manages to disclose it, we should assume that there should be a degree of truthfulness if not why go through with it.
Sometimes their testimony is characterised by retractions, which throw investigations into chaos and have two meanings: repairing a false allegation or preventing the consequences when it’s true. In a recent court trial Steven Barker, the step father of Peter Connelly also known a ‘Baby P’ was accused of sexually abusing his 2 yr old sister. The girl disclosed this information to her step mother at the age of 4, the delay might suggest that some details of the could be omitted.
The child was subject to very hard questioning and although the jury were divided due to her denial of the act on several accounts, it was proven that she was a victim. Coming to a conclusion isn’t as easy as it could seem and this gives just a brief insight to what jurors are often faced with in court trials that involve young victims of sexual abuse. The most important thing is that the ability to remember of a five yr old should never be taken for granted especially for something as severe as sexual abuse.
The evidence shows that can remember stressful events, even with delay, but majority don’t report sexual details, are prone to suggestibility, and can develop false memories. None the less it’s very improbable that a child, who has never seen nor eared of sexual abuse and hasn’t been fed with the wrong information by parents or even through suggestive interview would confess of having been a victim of sexual abuse. It is better to acknowledge children’s testimony and weight up the evidence. REFERENCES Bidrose, S. & Goodman, G. S. (2000).
Testimony and evidence: A scientific case study of memory for child sexual abuse. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 14, 197-213. Castel, A. D. , Humphreys, K. L. , Lee, S. S. , Galvan, A. , Balota, D. A. , & McCabe, D. P. (2011). The development of memory efficiency and value-directed remembering across the life p: A cross-sectional study of memory and selectivity. Developmental Psychology, 47(6), 1553-1564. Flin, R, Boon, J. , Knox, A. And Bull, r. (1992) The effect of a five month delay on children’s and adults, eyewitness memory.
British Journal of Psychology, 83 Goodman, G. S. , Hirschman, J. E. , Hepps, D. H. , &Rudy, L. (1991). Children’s memory for stressful l events. Merril Palmer Quarterly, 37, 109–158. Hershkowitz, I. , Lanes, O. , & Lamb, M. E. (2007). Exploring the disclosure of child sexual abuse with alleged victims and their parents. Child Abuse & Neglect, 31(2), 111-123. Hershkowitz, I. (1999). The dynamics of interviews involving plausible and implausible allegations of child sexual abuse. Applied Developmental Science, 3(2), 86-91. Holcomb, M.
J. , & Jacquin, K. M. (2007). Juror perceptions of child eyewitness testimony in a sexual abuse trial. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 16(2), 79-95. Loftus, E. F. (2004). Memories of things unseen. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13,145–147. Lloyd, M. E. , Doydum, A. O. , & Newcombe, N. S. (2009). Memory binding in early childhood: Evidence for a retrieval deficit. Child Development, 80(5), 1321-1328. Leander, L. , Christianson, S. , & Granhag, P. (2007). A sexual abuse case study children’s memories and reports.
Psychiatry, Psychology And Law, 14(1), 120-129. Meadows, S. (1986). Understanding Child Development. London: Century Hutchinson Ltd. McShane, J. (1991). Cognitive development: . An information processing approach. Cambridge, MA, US: Basil Bruckwell. Otgaar, H. , Candel, I. , Merckelbach, H. , ; Wade, K. A. (2009). Abducted by a UFO: Prevalence information affects young children’s false memories for an implausible event. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(1), 115-125. Odegard, T. N. , Cooper, C. M. , Lampinen, J. M. , Reyna, V. F. , & Brainerd, C. J. (2009).
Children’s eyewitness memory for multiple real-life events. Child Development, 80(6), 1877-1890. R. C. Summitt,” The child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome”, Child abuse and Neglect, Vol 7, 2, P. 177-193. Schreiber, N. , Bellah, L. D. , Martinez, Y. , McLaurin, K. A. , Strok, R. , Garven, S. , et al. (2006). Suggestive interviewing in the McMartin Preschool and Kelly Michaels daycare abuse cases: case study. Social Influence, 1, 16–47. Tully, B. (2002). The evaluation of retractions in sexual abuse cases. Child Abuse Review, 11(2), 94-102. doi:10. 1002/car. 728

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