Skip to content

Rethinking child testimony: Research shows children are less likely to form false memories.

When Hudson County, N.J. prosecutor Debra Simon tried her first sex crime case in 1992, she had no physical evidence. She relied on the testimony of the victim, a six-year-old girl in pigtails who took the stand on a stack of phone books so the jury could see her.

But the girl recounted vivid details of the crime, including the battery-operated, toy dog the perpetrator used to lure her into a bedroom. The jury convicted the man and a seven-year sentence was handed down.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better witness,” Simon said. “You just knew watching her that she was telling the truth and she couldn’t possibly have made this up.”

A new wave of research on child memory may explain the girl’s accuracy. Human development researchers at Cornell University say studies show children are less likely to develop false memories under certain conditions than adults are. They say the tendency to remember what people assumed happened--instead of what actually happened--increases with age.

Adults and older children remember events through the lens of past experiences and what they’ve seen on television and in films. When they witness a robbery, for example, they are more apt to remember that the suspect held a knife even if he actually held a hairbrush. The ability to connect a robbery on television to one in real life is less developed in young children, who are more likely to remember the hairbrush.

The researchers say their work has implications for the courtroom. “There are obviously some fundamental features of memory that enhance the accuracy of children’s testimony,” said Valerie Reyna, a Cornell University professor who reported the findings. “This notion that children should be dismissed as witnesses, this really challenges that idea.”

The veracity of child testimony has been an issue in high-profile sexual abuse cases. In the mid-1980s, the owners, administrators and several teachers at the McMartin Pre-school in California were charged with hundreds of counts of child abuse; the investigation, trials and retrials dragged on for years but no convictions were made.

Similarly, in 1985, a New Jersey teacher was accused of bizarre crimes, including raping her preschool students with knives, forks and Legos. She served five years of a 47-year prison sentence before her conviction was overturned by an appeals court that found she did not get a fair trial because of the way the children were questioned.

In their new research, Reyna and her colleague, Charles Brainerd, theorize that memory is comprised of two different processes; verbatim memory, which is what actually happened, and gist memory, what people understand happened. The tendency to rely on gist memories increases with age.

In a standard memory test, people are asked to remember a series of words like orange, peach, pear and pineapple. Young children are more likely to remember the specific produce names, but older children and adults tend to generalize or insert words. “They might say fruit, they might say apple,” Reyna said. “They might have a vivid memory of you having said apple.”

Reyna and Brainerd, who have developed mathematical models to measure the differences, first reported their findings in 2002. Since then, about 30 follow-up studies, from schools such as Duke University, Ohio State University and University of California, Berkeley, have verified their results. Reyna and Brainerd reviewed those studies in an article to be published in “Psychological Bulletin” in May.

Television shows may tout forensic investigations, but Brainerd said testimony often plays the most important role in a trial. “The law just ain’t CSI,” said Brainerd, head of Cornell’s law, psychology and human development program. “In over 90 percent of the criminal cases in the United States absolutely no forensic, physical evidence is gathered.”

Children’s testimony is especially important in sexual abuse cases because the victim is often the only witness to the crime. Defense attorneys who represent suspected sex offenders say the new findings do not show children are more reliable witnesses—not because of their memories, but because of the way, they say, children are frequently questioned.

“The premise of the research is the children are properly questioned. This is rarely the case in the real world” said Rick Lougee, a lawyer from Tucson, Ariz. “One of the problems that you have in these cases is that the adults will very often go through the interview process in a way that elicits unreliable information.”

That may include suggestive and leading questions to corroborate accusations rather than investigate them, Lougee said. Today, some states videotape child interviews with investigators to monitor the questioning.

Developmental psychologists, including Reyna and Brainerd, say children are more suggestible and likely to parrot authority figures than adults.

The new research on false memories may not bolster a prosecutor’s case. “This doesn’t answer what the key defense to a child witness case is,” said David LaBahn, director of the American Prosecutors Research Institute. “The accusation is they’re lying—this never happened. Somebody made it up because of a divorce or a witch hunt.”

David Marshall, a defense attorney from Seattle, Wash., once represented one client whose 13-year-old son accused the father of raping him when he was eight. Marshall said the boy’s story evolved every time he was questioned and that the man was eventually acquitted. Marshall suggested the boy’s mother, who badmouthed her estranged spouse, or a therapist introduced the apparently false accusation.

One of the leading experts on children’s testimony said the new findings’ biggest impact will not be on the reliability of testimony by young children, but what they imply about potential inaccuracies in older kids’ memories.

“I don’t see this as anyone raising the flag and saying ‘whoops, we don’t need to worry about these young ones anymore,’” said Maggie Bruck, professor of developmental psychology at Johns Hopkins University, and author of “Jeopardy in the Courtroom.” Instead, it shows that as children grow, gain knowledge and develop more complicated memories “there’s more havoc to play with than in the young child.”

E-mail: aln2115@columbia.edu