Children are often called on to give evidence in court and it’s crucial that we identify the most appropriate ways of questioning them. According to new research by Jehanne Almerigogna and colleagues, whether or not the interviewer is smiling and fidgeting can have a profound impact on children’s answers.
Eighty-six children, aged 8 to 10, took part in a ten minute lesson on how the vocal chords work, before being interviewed about the session a week later. Some of the children were interviewed by a woman who smiled and did not fidget. The others were interviewed by the same woman, but in their case she was not smiling and she fidgeted by tapping her hand or foot.
One of the questions asked the children whether or not they had been touched by the teacher during the lesson. Only eight children said falsely that they had – all of them had been interviewed by the woman when she was unsmiling and fidgeting. Moreover, significantly more of the children interviewed by the woman when she was unsmiling and fidgeting answered misleading questions incorrectly. “Children may be less prone to oppose an adult who they view as distant and strict,” the researchers said.
The children interviewed by the fidgeting, unsmiling woman also said they didn’t know the answer to questions far less frequently than did the children interviewed by the same woman smiling and not fidgeting. Perhaps the former group of children felt “more vulnerable and anxious” and therefore “more compelled to give an answer even when they did not know it,” the researchers said.
“Better understanding of the effects of interviewers’ behaviours should allow professionals to control and manipulate them in interviews so as to increase the reliability of eye witness reports,” Almerigogna and colleagues concluded.
ALMERIGOGNA, J., OST, J., AKEHURST, L., FLUCK, M. (2008). How interviewers’ nonverbal behaviors can affect children’s perceptions and suggestibility. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 100(1), 17-39. DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2008.01.006