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See Inside June/July 2008

Put the Kid on the Stand

Children may make fewer memory errors when recalling an event

In court, many people assume that adult witnesses are more reliable than children. This bias may be unfair, according to a growing number of studies. Although adults remember a greater amount of accurate information, they tend to focus on the meaning of an event, which leads to more “false memory” mistakes—they recall something that makes sense in context but is actually a detail fabricated by their brain. Children, the new research shows, do not make such errors as often.

Although studies have shown this trait in kids before, critics sometimes blame the study methods, which rely on word lists. When adults read the words “dream,” “pajamas” and “bed,” they often mistakenly remember seeing the word “sleep.” Children do not make these meaning-based inferences as often, but skeptics suggest that this result can be attributed to the fact that kids simply may not be familiar with some of the words they are asked to recall or recognize, such as “surgeon” or “physician.”

Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and other institutions countered these criticisms by using word lists generated by second-grade children. They then found that other second graders did not make many false-memory errors, fifth graders sometimes resembled adults and sometimes the younger children—depending on the task—and by eighth grade the kids were thinking like grown-ups.

Younger kids “don’t seem to view the world in quite the connected way that adults do,” says psychologist Richard Metzger, lead author of the study. The findings answered what was “going to be a nagging question” about whether the results in children were real, says Charles Brainerd, a psychologist at Cornell University who evaluated Metzger’s research as part of a review of more than 30 studies of false memory in children. Many psychologists hope this type of research will bolster the credibility of children’s testimony in court.

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