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U.K. Study of Consistency Among Pairs of Child Witnesses Shows Surprising Results

by Matt Clarke

A recent report on a study of the consistency among pairs of child witnesses published in the U.K. journal Legal and Criminological Psychology showed the surprising result that neither the age of the paired children nor the consistency of the details the pairs of child witnesses report are necessarily indicative of the accuracy of their reports.

The authors explained that previous studies of paired child witnesses found a consistency rate of around 66%. However, those studies were flawed in that they used focused questions about an event the children witnessed to prompt them. “Focused questions, which include directives and closed prompts, specify what precise information an interviewee should report. Because these prompts request the same specific information from all participants, the range of possible responses was restricted in prior studies.

Best-practice guidelines instead promote the use of open-ended questions in forensic interviews (e.g., ‘Tell me what happened’). Open-ended questions encourage elaborate responses, promote the most accurate recall, and give interviewees flexibility about what information to report. Because open-ended questions allow for more flexible responses, they are likely to generate lower co-witness consistency when compared to” focused questions about the same event. “For example, compare the open prompt, ‘What happened at the fair?’ with the more focused prompt, ‘What rides did you go on?’”

This research was “the first exploration into co-witness consistency” in which children were interviewed using open-ended questions. The study used 58 pairs of children between the ages of five and nine years. The individuals in a pair were close to the age of the other member of the pair, an average of about five months apart. Most pairs consisted of one girl and one boy. This could actually be a flaw in the study as the researchers do not appear to have controlled for the possibility that girls and boys may focus on different aspects of an event, leading to a lower consistency than might be found with same-sex pairs.

The pairs of children participated in a Germ Detective event in which the research assistant leading the event encouraged them to break the rules and broke them himself. The Germ Detective paradigm had previously been found to be an effective analogue for exploring disclosures of child sexual abuse. The two rules were that the researcher should not touch the children’s skin (to avoid germ contamination) and none of them should touch equipment that was covered by a sheet.

The researcher guided the children through three main activities focusing on germ travel, germ transmission, and proper hand washing. He committed six transgressions, progressively building on one another. The children either observed or participated in the transgressions, which included: removing a sheet to reveal a cupboard, opening the cupboard and finding a box containing a “top secret” science experiment, taking an Energy Stick out of the closed box, activating the Energy Stick, holding hands, and washing after touching each other’s skin to remove germs.

Prior to each transgression, the researcher highlighted that it was against the rules. At the end of the 20-minute event, he asked the children not to tell the interviewers that they broke the rules.

The children were interviewed twice over the ensuing five days. Each interview was preceded by ground rules and a practice narrative. Then they were prompted to tell the interviewer everything that happened during the Germ Detective event. Follow up questions that did not involve any detail not already revealed by the child were used to ensure exhaustive recall.

The number of prompts needed before a transgression was revealed was coded as immediate (1 prompt), early (2-5 prompts), or late (6+ prompts). Most commonly, the pairs revealed the transgression at the “immediate” or “immediate-early” stage.

The 62 (6 transgression and 56 event) details that were possible to report were classified as central or peripheral. It was generally believed that witnesses remember central details better than peripheral details, that older children are more consistent than younger children, and that a delay in interviewing or a difference in forthcomingness between the two witnesses would lead to greater inconsistency. The study was designed to test these hypotheses.

“Co-witness consistency is the extent to which witnesses of a mutual event report the same details.” Importantly, when one witness reports a detail that another does not, it is considered inconsistent, even if the reported detail is accurate. Thus, for a pair that reports 20 details each, but only 10 of which are reported by both children, the consistency would be 10/30 (the number of details both reported divided by the total number of unique details reported) or 33.33%, even if all 30 unique details are accurately reported.

“Co-witnesses tended to be quite inconsistent: 32% - 55% of all details recalled were only mentioned by one witness.” This shows that “inconsistency between co-witnesses is a natural product of memory processes, particularly when witnesses are given latitude in what to report and how to report it.… Indeed, 45 % - 55% of transgressions, and 32% - 33% of event details mentioned in [the two interviews] were only reported by one co-witness; however, all of these details were accurate.” Therefore, the belief that co-witness consistency is an indication of accuracy should be abandoned, according to the study.

“There was no indication that co-witnesses’ consistency in reported central and peripheral details differed according to the age of the pair.” Thus, the belief that younger children necessarily make worse witnesses should be questioned. Co-witnesses of all ages were more consistent in reporting central than peripheral details (e.g., 53% - 56% for transgressions compared to 29%. - 36% for event details). They were less consistent in reporting transgression details at the second interview than the first (54.85% compared to 45.21%) but about the same at reporting event details (33.12% compared to 32.10%).

Forthcomingness was a significant predictor of consistency. When both witnesses disclosed rapidly, they tended to be more consistent in reporting transgression details at the first interview and event details at the second interview. The study concluded that the perception that co-witness consistency reflects witness reliability is unfounded. Obviously, these findings are potentially of great importance in the criminal justice context.   


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