Children are notoriously unreliable witnesses. Conventional wisdom holds that they frequently “remember” things that never happened. Yet a large body of research indicates that adults actually generate more false memories than children. Now a new study finds that children are just as susceptible to false memories as adults, if not more so. Scientists may simply have been using the wrong test.
Traditionally, researchers have explored false memories by presenting test subjects with a list of associated words (for instance, “weep,” “sorrow” and “wet”) thematically related to a word not on the list (in this case, “cry”) and then asking them what words they remember. Adults typically mention the missing related word more often than children do—possibly because their life experiences enable them to draw associations between concepts more readily, says Henry Otgaar, a forensic psychologist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and co-author of the new paper, published in May in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.
Instead of using word lists to investigate false memories, Otgaar and his colleagues showed participants pictures of scenes, including a classroom, a funeral and a beach. After a short break, they asked those participants whether they remembered seeing certain objects in each picture. Across three experiments, seven- and eight-year-old children consistently reported seeing more objects that were not in the pictures than adults did.
Past studies have shown that children tend to rely on the gist of a memory when making inferences about it—for instance, if they saw a classroom they might assume that they also saw pencils because pencils are usually found in classrooms. This pattern-recognition process helps kids learn quickly as they grow. Adults, on the other hand, draw more on specific details they recall to reconstruct a scene. By using pictures instead of word lists, the new study probably came closer to reflecting how false memories occur in real life—after all, most of us experience the world visually, Otgaar says.
The authors note that the study may hold clues to getting more reliable testimony out of both children and adults, as subtle shifts in framing could dramatically alter what witnesses remember. When talking to children, for example, lawyers should try to avoid giving out clues to jog their memory or using especially descriptive language, which could trigger activation of the pattern-making system in the brain that contributes to false memories.