The Interaction Between Children's Developmental Capabilities and the Courtroom Environment: The Impact on Testimonial Competency
- 4.3 Age as a Factor in Memory
- 4.4 Prior Knowledge and Memory
- 4.5 Impact of Anxiety on Memory
- 4.6 Long-Term Memory
Ornstein et al. (1991) hypothesized that with age there are corresponding changes in a variety of cognitive functions that influence the acquisition and storage of information and retrieval of that information in the memory system. Of all the variables that have been examined in the literature on memory in children, age of children has been the most significant. The research strongly suggests that there are age differences in children's recall in both laboratory studies and in the natural environment, indicating that older children may produce stronger representations in storage than younger children and remember more information for a longer period of time (Ornstein, 1995; Ornstein et al., 1992).
These findings help us to appreciate why much information adults feel is relevant to a particular situation is not encoded and does not enter into storage, or has a weak representation in storage, especially in the case of young children. As children mature and they have a better understanding of what is meaningful and relevant in a social context, they tend to encode more information and organize it better. As the above sample of the principal and students showed, young children don't necessarily know what information the adult is looking for and therefore do not scan their memories in the same way.
If we refer back to the school scenario, it is likely that the younger child who was interviewed had no idea what information was being sought by the principal because he did not really understand what the man was actually doing in the washroom and did not know that it was important information. In the case of the older boy, he did offer information regarding the stranger in the washroom. The older child required less cues and had a better sense of what was important for the principal to hear. With assistance, both children provided accounts, which corroborated each other.
A child's age has been identified in the literature as impacting on encoding and storage, because it is related to the child's knowledge base. Specific domain knowledge is a critical area in the study of memory. Clubb, Nida, Merritt and Ornstein (1993) have suggested that children's understanding of an event to which they are exposed will have a profound effect on what they encode and what is stored in their memory. If this is true, this may help us to understand how older children might understand and encode more organized information about an experience of sexual abuse than younger children who do not possess a basic knowledge of sexual behavior, sexual terms, and sexual anatomy. If children don't understand what is happening to them, many peripheral details may not be encoded, as their significance is not understood. Given this information, we need to modify our expectations of children in this regard when they testify in court about sexual matters and other complex social behaviors.
The role of the child's mental state at the time of encoding of the event(s) in question is a relatively new area of focus in memory research with children. It stands to reason, that in the case of child victimization, the remembered experience(s) is often traumatic and frightening, and can cause extreme distress in the child. Most recently, there have been some contradictory findings with respect to whether heightened anxiety and stress at the time of an event has a positive or negative effect on children's memory. In some cases it has been suggested that high levels of stress increase children's abilities to focus and thus to encode the information (Terr, 1988), but others have suggested that too much stress at the time of the to be remembered event can cause memory impediment (Ceci & Bruck, 1993; Merritt, Ornstein, & Spicker, 1994; Peters, 1989a; 1991).
If an event is distressing at the time it is happening, it is conceivable that it is also distressing when it is remembered later on. The research on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has provided support for the notion that intrusive memories of past trauma can be particularly anxiety provoking. One explanation for poorer recall of details in traumatic memories may be that these details are encoded in such a way that they are more difficult to access (Foa & Riggs, 1993). These authors propose that in adult rape victims, traumatic memories are often disorganized and fragmented, because they are encoded while the individual experiences extreme anxiety. They also hypothesize that heightened arousal may decrease the range of stimuli to which the individual attends. It follows that something similar may occur with children who are traumatized as well. During a traumatic incident, children's distress may be so overwhelming that they are unable to concentrate and fail to perceive much beyond the central act.
Another plausible explanation is that even though the details may have been encoded, their retrieval is hampered by the negative valence attached to the memories and are made less accessible as a result of continuous attempts by children to repress or push them from consciousness. More simply put, children may have encoded many details of an abusive experience even during heightened anxiety, but are unable to retrieve the memory traces. Retrieval can be hindered by the traumatic quality of the memory traces and the need to protect one's psyche. This combined with the presence of less well developed cognitive structures to help organize traumatic memories in storage, make remembering a traumatic event more difficult.
Different studies have found support for each explanation, suggesting that there may be an optimum level of stress beyond which encoding is inhibited, and individual differences in children's reactions to stress, which together are responsible for the varying amounts of information being remembered about a traumatic event.
What is encouraging for those who advocate the participation of very young children in the court system, is the literature examining children's ability to correctly recall events over time. Given the lengthy delays that are often characteristic of cases in criminal court (up to two years), it is possible that young children could be expected to talk about events that have happened to them several years earlier. The good news is that even very young children (aged three) appear to be capable of recalling much that is forensically relevant (Ceci & Bruck, 1993).
If we review some of the earlier studies on long-term memory, we find that most paradigms have involved situations where children provide information about a past event in free recall. Fivush, Hudson, and Nelson (1984) were one of the first to study children's long-term memory for a real life novel event. They examined children's memory for a museum trip in archaeology, a day after, six weeks later and then one year later. What they found was that the children's memories remained stable over a six week period from the first to the second interview, and although children recalled less detail a year later, what they did remember was remarkably accurate.
These findings led to more studies of children's abilities to recall a real life event, rather than simply word lists in laboratory memory tasks. Several studies went on to examine children's recall of brief but salient medical and dental procedures over the short and long-term (Goodman, Hepps, & Reed, 1986; Peters, 1989b). It was hoped that these studies would be more ecologically valid (relevant to real life experiences) than previous laboratory research on memory. In the study by Goodman and her colleagues, memory in younger children (aged three and four) for a medical procedure, was compared to memory for the same procedure in five and six year old children. Recall of details did not decrease over delays that extended over nine days, but there were age differences in amount of recall with older children remembering more than younger children.
A slightly different approach was employed by Peters (1987) who studied recognition memory (in this case the ability to identify a picture of a professional who was involved in the dental examination of the child subjects). Children between the ages of three and eight were tested. There was no decline in recognition memory between short-term (24 hours) and longerterm delays (three weeks) and few age differences in recall at either time. Peters suggested that for a recognition task, long-term memory was accurate for all the children ranging from age three to eight.
More recently, in a study by Ornstein et al. (1992), three and six year old children were examined for their memories for a personally experienced salient event that is a visit to the doctor. Children of both age groups remembered most of the features of the check up at the immediate memory test, but there were significant memory differences between the children of different ages at the one week and three-week intervals, with older children remembering more details. In fact older children tended to remember more details than younger children at all points in time. They also found that in order to obtain the details from the younger children, they had to employ more direct questions.
Recently, Peterson and Bell (1996) in an important study of memory followed up and interviewed children aged two to thirteen, six months after they incurred injuries that required a trip to a hospital. Their findings showed that "
even children who were three years of age were highly accurate when recalling both what happened and who was there at the time of the injury and the hospital treatment" (pp. 3045). In fact, 80% to 90% of the information they gave was correct! However these children initially provided only 40% of the information in free recall, and the rest was obtained through direct questioning. Peterson (1997) replicated this study with a two year follow up, and found that children who were at least three years of age were highly accurate when recalling what happened and who was there, even two years later. They still remembered 80% to 90% of the details.
The findings in all three of these studies have important implications for the testimonial capabilities of children. Their results contradict assertions by some that young children (under five) are too young to provide accurate accounts about personally experienced events, especially after a long delay. Their results also support the practice of using cues in the form of more direct questions with young children to help them organize their memories. It appears that preschoolers can be expected to remember at least some central actions in free recall and what they offer can be highly accurate descriptions of past events. This is particularly true if they have personally experienced the event. They need to be asked direct questions to elicit the details.
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