IPT Book Reviews

Title: The Suggestibility of Children's Recollections   Positive Review Positive Review Positive Review
Editor: John Doris
Publisher: American Psychological Association 1991

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This 193-page edited volume came out of an APA-sponsored conference at Cornell in June, 1989.  The conference organizers were aware of the controversies surrounding the reliability of children's eyewitness testimony and contradictory findings in the literature and conference presentations.  At the same time, the legal system was relying on psychology and other behavioral and clinical sciences for guidance.  The purpose of the conference was for invited psychologists to "meet and grapple, in the true spirit of scientific cooperation, with the methods, procedures, and constructs that have given rise to so much disagreement in this field" (p. 1).  The authors are well known in the area of memory and children's testimony.

Several participants from the conference have prepared chapters on topics including memory, suggestibility, and effects of stress on memory in terms of allegations of sexual abuse.  There is a chapter on a new (in the United States) method for assessing the credibility of interviews, criteria-based content analysis.  Each chapter is followed by from one to three commentaries where disagreements are aired.  The original authors for two of the chapters respond to the criticisms in the commentary.  The result is a synthesis of current thinking as well as where there are agreements and disagreements.


This is an extremely important book since it represents expert psychological opinion on issues relevant to the reliability of children's testimony in cases of alleged sexual abuse.  How children's testimony is evaluated in the justice system has far-reaching consequences on the life and liberty of many people.  Several authors point out that an important issue is the extent to which laboratory research may not correspond to real-world events as they take place in natural settings.  Studies on the memory and accuracy of child witnesses are unable to consider motives, threats, inducements, and the interventions of the system.  They cannot explore the large variety of scenarios which take place in actual cases of alleged sexual abuse.  None have assessed susceptibility to memory distortion by children who are subjected to strong and repeated suggestive questioning over long periods of time.  None have used interviews such as those reported in the McMartin preschool case (which we have found typical of interviews throughout the country), and none could.  Such an experiment would be unethical.  Therefore, generalizations from laboratory research about the reliability of children's testimony in the real world should be made very cautiously.

One continuing dispute, whether errors occur in the retrieval process or in the storage capacity, is of interest to researchers but is not really relevant to the real world.  In an actual court case with a child witness it doesn't matter which is altered, retrieval or storage, if the recollection is distorted.  There is general agreement that children's recollections are subject to distortion and that repeated questioning, even without an attempt to misinform, can result in a distortion of the content of the reported memories.

The studies by Gail Goodman and her colleagues, which are frequently cited in the courtroom to show that children do not make false reports when asked leading questions, can only indicate that children are not easily led into false reports when interviewed once by a stranger where they are asked only a couple of unrepeated leading questions.  But even here some of Goodman's subjects acquiesce to suggestions.  Max Stellar notes that "The finding that an erroneous allegation of extreme severity could be provoked in an experimental setting with a small sample of children is of striking importance for forensic investigations" (p. 108).

Lucy McGough notes that "The body of Goodman's work seems to stand for the proposition that if children have personally experienced a significant event like touching by a stranger, and if they are enabled to reconstruct their experience shortly thereafter, and if this reconstruction occurs in a supportive environment created by a warm, skillful interviewer, then their accounts of the extent, duration, and sequence of the experience core are highly reliable" (p.115).  Everyone in the field would agree with such a conclusion.  But, as McGough also points out, the current legal system does little to recreate these kinds of conditions and what takes places in actual cases creates a risk of substantial impairment of the child's memories by the time of trial.  McGough recommends an unbiased initial interview which is audio- or videotaped, a recommendation with which presumably everyone would also agree.

This is an extremely important book and is highly recommended to attorneys and mental health professionals who are involved cases of alleged child sexual abuse.

Reviewed by Hollida Wakefield, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.

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