When young children experience an event, what do they pay attention to? What is noticed the most and what is paid the least attention?
To answer these questions, Strange and Hayne (2013) conducted two novel experiments. The first involved 125 five- to six-year-old children who visited a fire station, where they participated in several activities. One to two days later, each child was interviewed using open-ended questions to determine what event details they would naturally report. The results showed that 29% of the children spontaneously reported details about clothing, while fewer than 4% mentioned details about weather, time, or duration of the visit.
In the second study, 27 five- to six-year-old, and 30 nine- to ten-year-old children visited the same fire station, participated in the same activities, and were interviewed one or two days later about their trip. These interviews consisted of two phases – the first used only open-ended questions and was followed by a series of specific prompts asking about weather, time, day of the week, what the child was wearing, et cetera.
In this study, only 4% of the children spontaneously mentioned clothing and none spontaneously reported details about weather, time, or duration of the visit. When asked specific questions about the weather, all children responded accurately but 51% provided uninformative, one-word answers (i.e., “sunny”).
When asked about the time of day of the trip, 67% of the children answered but 5% answered incorrectly, and 53% only indicated it was either the morning or afternoon. Fewer than half the children provided a precise and correct answer. None of the younger children and only 8 of the older children accurately reported the date of the trip, while 46% accurately indicated the day of the week. While most children responded when asked about the duration of the trip (90 minutes), their answers ranged from 3 to 360 minutes.
Based on these findings, the researchers identified two factors that are important to consider when evaluating testimony about events experienced in childhood but not reported until years later.
First, the report should be “calibrated” to the witness’s age at the time of the event, meaning that if the event occurred when the child was 5 or 6 years old, their report should not have many details of the kind referenced above.
Second, if the narrative does contain such details, “… jurors should be skeptical about the accuracy of that information, rather than assume it lends credibility to their statement… Even in situations where adults are not trying to deliberately mislead… it still may be the case that some of the details that they report are based on a source other than their own experience… as well as on inferences that they might have drawn from trying to recall the event so many years later” (Strange & Hayne, 2013, p. 440).
Other research indicates that when adults testify in court about sexual abuse that occurred in childhood, their memories include details such as temporal information (i.e., time of day, day of week, etc.), handedness of the offender, conversations, the whereabouts of other people, features of weather, clothing type and placement, and furniture placement and color (Conway, 2013; Howe, 2013). These peripheral details are the type that weaken and fade from memory most quickly and their presence, especially in large numbers, is at-odds with scientific findings regarding the details that young children encode when forming memories of early childhood events.
When a witness’s testimony includes many specific, peripheral details this may create the leading impression that the witness is accurately recalling the event in question. Some triers of fact may be unduly persuaded by such detailed testimony, especially compared to the testimony of another witness that recalls fewer, but more likely to-be-remembered, details. In these circumstances, the trier of fact may benefit from educational testimony that accurately describes how memories operates and its characteristic features.
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Conway, M.A. (2013). On being a memory expert witness: Three cases. Memory, 21(5), 566-575. (Retrieved from City Research Online, University of London Institutional Repository, 1-27.)
Howe, M.L. (2013). Memory lessons from the courtroom: Reflections on being a memory expert on the witness stand. Memory, 21(5), 576-583. (Retrieved from City Research Online, University of London Institutional Repository, 1-20)
Strange, D. & Hayne, H. (2013). The devil is in the detail: Children’s recollection of details about their prior experiences. Memory, Vol. 21, No. 4, 431-443