A hugely controversial topic in psychology concerns how likely it is that some or many claims of abuse made by children are actually based on false memories, possibly implanted through the suggestions of therapists or leading questions from investigators. A related issue is whether going through the terrible experience of being mistreated makes it more or less likely that a child will be prone to forming false memories based on the suggestions or leading questions of others. In a small but important new study in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, a team led by Henry Otgaar at Maastricht University report that while a group of maltreated children were more prone to spontaneous false memories than control participants, they were in fact, to the researchers’ surprise, less prone to false memories based on suggestion. “This is a hitherto unreported finding,” they said.
Otgaar and his colleagues tested 127 4- to 12-year-old children, 21 of whom were suspected of having been physically or sexually abused. The children in the mistreated group were recruited through their parents or guardians from a forensic child abuse centre and a child interrogation studio in the Netherlands. All those recruited from the interrogation studio were involved in legal cases related to alleged sexual abuse. The children who formed the control group were recruited from local primary schools in middle class areas. To provide further verification of the children’s status, all parents or guardians completed a trauma questionnaire about their child, and this indicated, as expected, that the maltreated group had experienced significantly more trauma than the control participants.
The researchers tested the children’s susceptibility to false memories in two ways. The first involved the children remembering lists of words on a related theme, and then judging which words among another series had appeared in that earlier list and which were new (this is known as the Deese-Roediger-McDermott false memory paradigm). Wrongly claiming that a related but new word was in the earlier list was interpreted as an instance of a spontaneous false memory. For initial word lists that had a negative theme, children in the mistreated group were more prone to false memories. The researchers suggested this is because, given their experiences, they “might be more prone to automatically activate related but non-presented negative information in memory during encoding”.
To test the children’s susceptibility to false memories arising from suggestion, the researchers asked the children to watch a video of a bank robbery, and then to listen to an eye witness account of what happened. Crucially, the eye witness testimony featured five false claims about items involved in the robbery (this is a version of the “misinformation paradigm” developed by Elizabeth Loftus, a pioneer in this field). When the children were subsequently tested on what items had been involved during the robbery, those in the mistreated group were less prone to making errors based on the false claims in the eye witness testimony – that is they were less vulnerable to false memories arising from suggestion.
This finding about suggestibility is slightly complicated by the fact the mistreated group also failed to correctly identify as many items that really had been involved in the robbery. This might have protected them from suggestion because the falsehoods in the eye witness statement were related to actual items in the robbery. Not remembering the real items would make it harder to form false memories of related items that hadn’t actually featured in the robbery. For comparison, a previous study using different methods found no difference in suggestibility between abused and control groups.
Given the small sample size of mistreated children and the researchers’ inability to substantiate definitively the claims about what abuse the mistreated children had or hadn’t suffered, these new results should be considered highly tentative. However, the researchers said the findings could definitely be of legal relevance. “Our new angle on this debate is that our results suggest that trauma does affect memory, but in a rather complex and unique way,” they said.