See Inside August/September 2006

More Likely to Succumb

Despite the romantic notion that adversity makes a person mentally tough, new research suggests the opposite is true. Investigators at the University of Leicester in England read a narrative describing a bank robbery to 60 volunteers, then asked them to complete a test of their recall of details. The subjects were next asked a series of leading questions designed to elicit wrong answers about the same details. Participants were also told that their original responses may have been wrong and that they were being asked again to see if they would change their tune. Respondents who, according to an earlier questionnaire, had experienced more adversity early in life—including parental divorce or death, illness or bullying—were more likely to bow to suggestion or pressure and change their original, correct answers.

Negative experiences may encourage suggestibility by eroding a person's confidence in his or her judgment, proposes graduate student Kim Drake, one of the researchers. Drake hopes to develop ways to counteract suggestibility, in part to prevent false confessions to crimes.

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