Questioning children and adults for legal purposes: insights from a naturalistic data-set




Mahoney, Catherine E.

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This exploratory study examined the manner in which variations in questioning procedures influenced the amount and accuracy of information that children and young adults recalled about a video-taped incident. Preschoolers, 8 to 10-year-olds and young adults were assigned to one of three conditions. In the control condition, one interviewer had complete knowledge of the incident and used a standard question protocol to obtain free recall. To examine how prior knowledge may predispose interviewers to use leading questions, 60 interviewers in the informed condition had limited information about the incident and 60 interviewers in the blind condition had no information about the incident and both groups were free to use their own questioning strategies. The two major dependent measures were spontaneous material (elicited in response to all question types) and yes/no responses to closed questions. Two main hypotheses and several additional questions were examined. The first hypothesis predicted that the amount of spontaneous recall in the blind and informed conditions would be higher but the accuracy lower, when compared to material elicited in the free recall condition across age-groups. Although results showed a significant increase in recall amount, there was a differential effect on accuracy. For the two younger age-groups accuracy decreased but for the adult sample, accuracy scores remained stable across the three conditions. There were clear age-related differences in the amount of material freely recalled in the control condition and no differences in accuracy. In the blind and informed conditions, there were significant age-related differences in both the amount and accuracy of spontaneous recall material. The second hypothesis predicted that closed questions which are leading (in the correct sense) would elicit more accurate responses than those that are misleading. Results supported this hypothesis for the two older samples but there was no difference between the two accuracy scores for the youngest samples. The two older age-groups scored significantly higher than the pre-school sample for accuracy based on leading questions, but there were no age-related differences in response to misleading questions. The blind and informed conditions did not differ in the accuracy of spontaneous recall or closed question material. Accuracy scores were adjusted by subtracting errors associated with particular features in the questioning context and the subject’s developmental status. In comparing the original and adjusted accuracy scores, age-related differences for spontaneous recall were minimal and disappeared for accuracy based on closed questions. In addition to language and comprehension errors, the error type which most clearly distinguished the pre-school from the older age-groups were addition errors classed as incorrect inferences and fabrications. In all cases, these error types were associated with one or more features of the questioning context. The sequential nature of the question/response discourse was highlighted in the proportion of error which was extended over a sequence of turns and the proportion of interviews containing one or more e>ror retractions. For both measures, the two younger groups scored higher that the young adult group. Age related differences were also found in the amount and accuracy of material in the interviewer reports as well as in the components of report error. The results include a detailed outline of the manner in which fabricated material emerged, the circumstances under which it was retracted and the degree to which it appeared in the interviewer reports. Also reviewed are qualitative features relating to the form, content, techniques and style of questioning as well as characteristics of young children’s language, thinking and perception. The results are compared to previous research findings regarding age-related differences in question/response material with specific focus on issues regarding children’s inaccuracy, suggestibility and inability to distinguish fact from fantasy. Productive and counter-productive questioning procedures are discussed in relation to the demand characteristics of the interview setting, the nature of repeated questioning and a number of related issues specific to questioning in the forensic context. Practical application of the findings are discussed with a particular focus on improving non-leading questioning skills in applied settings.



Child witnesses, Memory in children, Examination of witnesses, Child psychology, Psychology, Applied