Age Differences in Eyewitness Testimony*
Gail S. Goodmant and Rebecca S. Reed1:
This study examined age differences in eyewitness testimony. Children, three and six years of age, and adults interacted with an unfamiliar man for 5 minutes. Four or five days later, the witnesses answered objective and suggestive questions, recalled what happened, and tried to identify the confederate from a target-present photo line-up. The adults and 6-year-olds did not differ in their ability to answer objective questions or identify the confederate, but 6-year-olds were more suggestible than adults and recalled less about the event. Compared to the older age groups, the 3-year-olds answered fewer objective questions correctly, recalled little about what happened, and identified the confederate less frequently. In addition, they were the most suggestible. The experiment extends our knowledge of children's ability to provide accurate eyewitness reports to a very young age group and to a situation in which participants are not merely bystander witnesses but instead directly interact with the confederate.
Children, like adults, witness and fall victim to crime. When they do, children's statements may serve as important information in police investigations; if the case goes to trial, children may be called to testify. Children provide eyewitness reports about a wide variety of criminal acts (e.g., sexual assult, murder, kidnapping) and have testified in courts of law for centuries (see Goodman, 1984a), but recent increases in reported crimes against children have heightened concerns about their ability to provide accurate eyewitness testimony. These concerns rest * The authors would like to thank: Cathy Clark for research assistance; Walter Houghtaling for serving as the confederate; Donald Mulnix, Chief of the Investigative Division of the Denver Police Department, for stimulus materials; and Darleen Yorty, Director of Cherry Creek Kindergarden and Preschool, Joan Smith, Director, of Mother Goose Preschool, and Christine Skulavik, Director of the Austin Preschool, for permitting us to obtain subjects through their Denver-based schools. Thanks also go to Wyndol Furman, Jack Reed, and Phillip Shaver for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. This research was supported by grants from the Developmental Psychobiology Research Group, Department of Psychiatry, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and from the University of Denver Honors Program. I" University of Denver. .~ University of Nebraska--Lincoln 317 0147-7307/86/1200-0317505.00/0 9 1986 Plenum Publishing Corporation
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largely on issues of children's memory and suggestibility. Children are generally assumed to possess less accurate memories than adults and to be more suggestible. This skepticism about children's testimony extends to lay persons, judges, psychologists, police officers, and attorneys (Goodman, Golding, & Haith, 1984; Yarmey & Jones, 1982, 1983). But are children less able than adults to provide reliable eyewitnesses reports? The present study offers findings pertinent to that question.
It is now apparent that each year hundreds of thousands of children witness or become victims of crime. While statistics are largely unavailable concerning the number of child bystander witnesses, statistics concerning crimes against children are staggering. Recent national estimates of child maltreatment range from tens of thousands to millions of cases (Gelles, 1984). According to one national survey, 25% of victims of all reported sexual assaults are under 12 years of age (Preventing child assault, 1983). In 1982, the FBI reported that nearly 5% of murder victims in the United States were children (U.S. Department of Justice, 1983). While many child witnesses will not testify at a trial, their eyewitness reports may serve as crucial information in police...