Test identifies children who are unreliable witnesses

January 14, 2003

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Hundreds of thousands of young children are interviewed as eyewitnesses every year in the United States, but their testimony sometimes can be swayed by their interviewers. Now a new test developed at Cornell University can reliably identify children who have a tendency to change their testimony in response to leading questions or negative feedback.

The test, which consists of watching a video and then responding to suggestive questioning, is scientifically reliable for children who are at least 4-and-a-half years of age, says Stephen J. Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell. The test assesses several aspects of suggestibility as well as individual differences among children.

"We hope that this Video Suggestibility Scale for Children (VSSC) will eventually prove useful for lawyers, police officers, judges, caseworkers and psychologists working on cases of abuse, neglect, child custody and persons in need of supervision," says Ceci. He adds that the test also could be used to train investigators. "By identifying children who are highly suggestible, the test can be used to alert interviewers and those involved in a case in which they need to take special interviewing precautions," he says.

Ceci developed the scale two years ago with his former graduate student Matthew Scullin, Cornell Ph.D. '01, who is now an assistant professor of psychology at West Virginia University. Recently, with Cornell doctoral student Tomoe Kanaya, Scullin and Ceci concluded that the test is valid and reliable by finding a high correlation between children's VSSC results and how they responded to suggestive questioning about staged events.

These findings are published in the December issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 8, No. 4).

The psychologists studied 25 children younger than 4.5 years -- average age 4 years, 1 month -- and 25 children over 4.5 years (an age at which most children start to understand that other people's thoughts differ from theirs); average age was 5 years. The psychologists staged two events in the children's preschools and then interviewed the children each week for four weeks. However, the interviewers intentionally made false suggestions about an event, asked leading questions, reinforced inaccurate information and applied indirect peer pressure. This was done by stating that other children had seen the child being interviewed participating in the event.

Several weeks later the children were assessed using the VSSC. The researchers found that the VSSC was a reliable predictor of whether children over age 4 were suggestible or not. The VSSC not only assessed memory recall but also the degree to which a child acquiesced to leading questions and changed answers after getting negative feedback. The test was highly predictive for children over age 4-and-a-half but not for children under age 4.

The VSSC is not yet available for public use, but the researchers hope it will be next year after they complete work on determining the range of normal values on the scale.
Related World Wide Web sites: The following site provides additional information on this news release. o Stephen Ceci: http://people.cornell.edu/pages/sjc9/

Cornell University

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