Collaborative Research: The Impact of Cuing on Children's Eyewitness Testimony and Source Monitoring

Project Details



Collaborative Research: The Impact of Cuing on Children's Eyewitness

Testimony and Source Monitoring

Each year, child protection workers, police officers, and staff members at child advocacy centers interview tens of thousands of children who are believed to be victims or witnesses of crimes. Because sexual abuse cases are especially difficult to investigate, efforts to develop interviewing techniques for child witnesses have focused on procedures for eliciting accurate information about inappropriate sexual contact. Currently, two forensic interviewing procedures dominate public policy: One emphasizes techniques for transferring control of the conversation to children and eliciting information with free-recall prompts, whereas the other cues children to report abuse experiences with body drawings and direct (specific) questions about touching. Protocols that emphasize free recall are often viewed as pro-defense (because these guidelines help prevent false allegations by discouraging questions containing specific event details), whereas protocols that emphasize interviewing aids and specific questions are viewed as pro-prosecution (because many professionals believe these procedures help children disclose abuse).

The current controversy about how to interview children stems mainly from a widespread but untested belief that conversational techniques that minimize false reports also reduce disclosures of embarrassing events. Supporting this belief is the well-known finding that encouraging children to describe events in their own words results in fewer false reports than cuing children with direct questions, but that a series of direct questions elicits more detailed narratives. However, previous studies that found benefits from cuing children's memories generally asked children to describe events that were known to have occurred, the topic of discussion was identified, and interviewers presented memory cues after children had already described events in their own words. These studies do not, however, tell us whether cuing early in an interview results in more accurate or complete testimony when the veracity of allegations is unknown or when children may have been exposed to misinformation about what actually happened. In fact, two well-researched phenomena-retrieval-induced forgetting and encoding specificity-demonstrate that cues often suppress memory for contextual information and decrease the number of items recalled. For example, adults in a pilot study who viewed photographs to help them recall sentences recalled fewer sentences than adults who simply recalled the sentences did, and these adults also were less likely to recall which of two individuals had provided the sentences.

The current project consists of two studies that will determine how cuing descriptions of experienced events with line drawings and specific questions influences the quality of information provided by children who are 4 to 9 years of age. Study 1 will explore the practical significance of cuing with a well-researched paradigm in which children experience an engaging event, are exposed to false information about that event, and receive interviews that mimic the two major styles. Study 2 is a basic memory study that will maximize the ability to detect developmental changes in the impact of cuing. Both studies will measure the effects of cuing on memory for events and source information, which is information about where children initially learned the information. Results will contribute to understanding basic memory mechanisms by documenting how cuing influences children's recall, guide future research on eyewitness testimony by illuminating the strengths and limitations of two interviewing styles, and impact state- and national-level training for professionals who investigate crimes against children and other vulnerable groups.

Effective start/end date1/08/0731/07/11


  • National Science Foundation: $117,186.00


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