Siobhan Manning

 

 

Age Differences in False Memory and Suggestibility

Background Research Question Method
Results Implications Relevant Links

Background

   False memory is the memory of something that is not true or of an event that did not happen.  They are constructd by the combination of actual memories as well as suggestions or misinformtion from others (Loftus, 1997).  The False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) defines false memory as a state in which one's identity focuses on a memory of a traumatic event that never happened, but in which the person strongly believes (Enns, 1996).
     Elizabeth Loftus (1997) has done extensive research on adults in the area of false memory.  She states that misinformation can alter one's memory in predictable and forceful ways.  Loftus and her students have done over 200 experiments on the effects of misinformation.  In one such study, Loftus created an un-harmful pseudo-memory of being lost in the mall at the age of five.  After interviewing the relatives of the participants, and being sure none of the participants had actually experienced this pseudo-memory, Loftus and her students created booklets for the participants containing three paragraphs of the participants' personal experiences and one paragraph about the created memory.  The participants were asked to write about the events in as great a detail as they could.  If they could not remember an event they were asked to write, "I do not remember this."  In the booklets as well as in two separate follow-up interviews, 7 out of 24 participants (29%) recalled something about the mall incident.  This study led Loftus to belive that a mere suggestion could trigger the forming of a false memory in some people.
     Suggestibility and false memory are directly related.  According to Ceci and Bruck (1993), suggestibility, in the broadest sense, concerns the extent to which a variety of social and psychological stimuli can manipulate children's encoding, storage, retrieval and reporting of events (Ceci & Bruck, 1993).  Suggestibility, therefore, is how susceptible one is to the creation of a false memory.
     One of the earliest researhers in the field of child suggestibiliy testing is W. Stern.  Stern developed a type of experiment that is still widely used today.  In his 1910 experiment, the subjects were shown a picture and asked to study it for a short time.  They were then asked a series of direct questions about the picture, followed by a series of misleading questions.  Stern found that although the younger children were by far the most suggestible, even the 18-year olds were misled by the suggestive questions from time to time (Ceci & Bruck, 1993).
     Another researcher in the field of child suggestibility is noted Belgian psychologist J. Varendonck.  Varendonck conducted a study in 1911 asking children in his class to describe a person who had supposedly approached him earlier in the schoolyard.  While no one had actually approached him, 17 out of the 22 children had given the person a name and had described the clothes he was wearing.  The questions that Varendonck used in his study were almost identical to those questions used by court officials in law cases (Ceci & Bruck, 1993).

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Research Question
      The purpose of this research was to investigate suggestibility in children and adults.  The hypothesis predicted that children would be more suggestible than adults.
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Method

     Child participants were 14 first graders, seven 6-year old males and seven 6-year old females.  Adult participants were 25 college freshmen between the ages of 18 and 19.  There were 2 male participants, and 23 female participants.
     The 1948 Disney Cartoon "Mickey and the Seal" was used as well as three short animal clips from the Johnny Carson Show (Copyright 1960).
     True and False Statements (Manning, 2000) were given to the participants one week after viewing the videos.  The Video Quiz (Manning, 2000), consisting of both "true and false" and "fill in the blank" questions, was given to the participans after reading the statements.

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Results

     The results were found to support the hypothesis.  The children in the experimental condition yielded more suggested answers than adults in the experimental condition.  The results also indicated that the adults in the control condition performed better than the children in the control condition, and on some questions the adults performed significantly better. 

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Implications

     Given that sexual abuse cases are becoming more frequent in criminal law, children are being brought into court as witnesses more often than ever.  Most times the child's testimony will implicate the defendant as the guilty party.  Considering the overabundance of recent studies that are dedicated to showing that children are less reliable than adults, it is astonishing that the legal system would sentence innocent people based solely on the testimony of one child.

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Relevant Links
 
  Homepage of the FMSF.
 
The Recovered Memory Project   Brown University's website with background information and ongoing research.
 
False Memory Syndrome Facts   Webpage with FMS facts, archives to information and links to support groups.
 
Child Witness Suggestibility in False Allegation Cases  Cowling Investigations, Inc. court-related information.
 

 
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