The effect of age on eyewitness testimony

The reliability of children as accurate eyewitnesses
Kent & Yuille (1987)
Kent & Yuille asked children to identify from a set of photographs a person they had seen earlier. They found that 9 year old children were far more likely than 14 year olds to identify someone from the photo set even when the target person was not present - in other words younger children were less likely to say that the person they had seen earlier was not present in the photo set. This followed earlier research that showed children as young as 5 were as able to correctly identify people they had seen earlier, and so it is not a problem with children’s memories that causes them to identify wrong people, but it is more likely that they feel less able to admit to an adult that they cannot do the task and so they just pick any photo when the target one is not there.

Research into the accuracy of children as eyewitnesses by Geiselman & Padilla (1988) found that children were far less accurate when reporting events of a filmed bank robbery than adults, however other research has failed to find much of a difference between adults and children, especially when free recall rather than structured interview is used (e.g. Cassel et al, 1996).

Factors affecting the accuracy of children’s memories
The three main processes involved in memory are encoding, storage and retrieval.

Long term memory is largely semantically encoded (i.e. by its meaning) and is organised into schemas. Schemas are collections of knowledge about particular events and concepts (e.g. a trip to a restaurant or what might be expected to occur in a bank robbery), and they guide the way we pay attention to and make sense of the world as well as how we reconstruct events when recalling them. Ceci & Bruck (1993) argue that children lack developed schemas for many events and so they have difficulty encoding events accurately. However, lacking a developed schema may in some cases be an advantage when compared with adults, as adults’ schemas may cause them to “see” things that are not actually there.

There is a general decline in memory as the interval since the event increases. Thomson (1988) argues that children’s memories are more susceptible to decline than adult memories, and so as time passes children may give less accurate eyewitness testimonies than adults, and the decline seems to affect memory for descriptions more than actions.

Children seem to have a greater susceptibility to leading questions than adults (Goodman & Reid, 1986), and younger children are likely to absorb misleading information into their memories of the events if they are asked the same question repeatedly (Leichtman & Ceci, 1995).

There factors affecting children’s’ encoding, storage and retrieval of memories for events they have witnessed have been summarised by Ceci & Bruck (1993). A biased interviewer can cause children to change their memories through use of leading questions; repeated questioning often results in children changing their stories as it suggests to them that they are wrong and they want to please the authority figure asking the questions; stereotypes can be introduced so children will report actions in a negative way about a person they are told is ‘bad’; children often incorporate things their peers tell them in to they memories; and if a child is asked to think hard about something then their imaginations may take over and they will recall fictitious events.

Implications and evaluation of research into children’s eyewitness testimonies
It is important to avoid the use of leading questions or questions that provide misleading information when interviewing children. Research has shown that children are more susceptible than adults to both leading questions and misleading information. For this reason it is important for people who interview children to be knowledgable about the factors that can affect their memory accuracy, and for interviews to be recorded where possible.

Most research into children’s memory and the accuracy has come from laboratory research and so the same general evaluations apply as with any laboratory experiments. There will generally be good control of extraneous variables meaning all participants were treated in the same way, and the independent variables will be carefully constructed so as to allow good inference of cause and effect. However the events witnessed will certainly lack ecological validity as they will be filmed scenes presented in a controlled environment, and there will be a lack of population validity (generalisability) as the participants will generally be from a specific population.

A Level exam tips
Answering a 12 mark question (PSYA1 AQA A specification)
Outline and evaluate research into the effect of age on eyewitness performance.
6 AO1 marks would come from a description of relevant research studies and the factors affecting children’s encoding, storage and recall of events.

6 AO2 marks would then come from explaining the implications of research for the way in which children are interviewed, and from evaluating the studies and explaining what the evaluation means for the validity of the research. Focus on control of extraneous variables, cause and effect, ecological validity, and population validity or generalisabilty.