Before psychologists testify in court on the reliability of young children, they should know the limitations of studies they cite and avoid generalizing from them, said speaker Michael Lamb, PhD, at the 11th National Conference on Children and the Law during a session on the suggestibility of children.

Lamb, the head of the Social and Emotional Development section in the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, discussed several ways research has identified that children's accounts can typically become contaminated in the time between an event and a trial. These include:

  • An event's low salience--if it is not unusual or noteworthy, a generic memory likely won't be remembered.

  • A child's inability to comprehend an event.

  • An event's uniqueness--if the event in question is one of many similar events, remembering its particular details is challenging.

  • Whether the event was a personal experience versus something a child saw on TV or heard about.

  • How recently the event occurred.

These factors do not guarantee children will alter their accounts. Yet many psychologists lead courts to believe that they will, said Lamb.

For example, he said, many psychologists point to a 1995 article by Maggie Bruck and colleagues in the journal Child Development (Vol. 66, No. 1) in which 5-year-olds received misinformation about the gender of a doctor who had given the children inoculations nearly one year before. The researchers talked about the event with the children on three different occasions. Those children who received misleading information later made more false allegations about the doctor's gender than children who received no misleading information.

But using this study to generalize about all children is not warranted, Lamb said, because the study found an effect only when it maximized and simultaneously used every factor to its advantage. The delay between inoculation and the test was long, the event in question was normal and not particularly memorable and researchers, who were knowledgeable in the eyes of the children, repeated the story several times. All of these factors "inflate the likelihood the child is going to acquiesce to suggestible reports," he explained.

Lamb said no study definitively says how suggestible children are. He said he wasn't criticizing these studies but argued that psychologists must build on them using more realistic conditions.

"We need more studies that look more closely at incidents as they really happen," he explained. "We should be careful coming to court and saying that half of preschoolers acquiesce to suggestive input. We don't know that."