Suggestibility And Longterm Event Memories

Studies focusing on suggestibility memory have provided indirect, but pertinent insights relevant to childhood amnesia. A large contemporary literature in developmental psychology has been directed at understanding why, and under what circumstances, children's memory reports contain particular kinds of inaccuracies (Ackil & Zaragoza, 1995; Ceci & Bruck, 1993; Leichtman & Ceci, 1995, Robinson & Whitcombe, 2003). Specifically, many researchers have been interested the vulnerability of children's memories to distortion from influences external to the original memory trace.

A wealth of findings, accumulated over the two decades, attests to a decline in suggestibility with age. While adults and children of all ages are vulnerable to suggestion (Loftus, 1991; Schacter, 1995), young children are disproportionately vulnerable (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Lepore & Sesco, 1994). Typically, children's suggestibility has been documented in misinformation paradigms in which children experience a story or event and, subsequently, receive misleading information about the details that they witnessed. For example, Ceci, Ross, and Toglia (1987) read a story about several events in the life of a protagonist to children between the age of 3 and 12. The day after the reading, a researcher interviewed the participants, asking a series of questions about the story. The researcher included subtle misinformation in his or her questions to experimental participants, while including only correct information in questions to control participants. Two days later, another researcher gave all participants two-item forced choice recognition tasks regarding the items present in the original story. The results indicated that control participants were highly accurate in recognizing the correct original items; the mean for all age groups was between 84% and 95% correct. In contrast, there was a sharp age trend in the experimental group due to younger children's incorrect selection of suggested information or "false alarms": 3- to 4-year-olds achieved a mean of 37% correct, 5- to 6-year-olds a mean of 58% correct, 7- to 9-year-olds a mean of 67% correct, and 10- to 12-year-olds a mean of 84% correct.

More naturalistic paradigms have demonstrated similar age effects. For example, Leichtman and Ceci (1995) conducted a study of 3- to 6-year-olds centering on an event staged in their preschool classrooms. The event was the unannounced visit of a man named Sam Stone. Sam Stone simply entered the children's classrooms while they were gathered in a circle, said hello, chatted, looked around the room, and left after several minutes. Researchers gave children in an experimental group a series of four misleading interviews over the course of 8 weeks. During each interview, the researchers assumed in their questioning that Sam Stone had committed clumsy acts during his visit, such as spilling and breaking things. The questions thus centered on the circumstances and details of these acts. When interviewed 10 weeks after the event, many experimental group children who participated in misleading interviews appeared convinced that Sam Stone had committed actions in line with the researchers' suggestions. In response to an open-ended question about what happened during Sam Stone's visit, 21% of 3- to 4-year-olds and 14% of 5- to 6-year-olds alleged that Sam Stone committed at least one clumsy act consistent with the suggestions. In response to direct questions regarding actions about which they had been mislead, commission error rates climbed to 53% for younger participants and 38% for older participants. In contrast, control participants of both ages, who received no misleading suggestions after Sam Stone's visit, made almost no such errors under open-ended or direct question conditions 10 weeks after the event.

The growing evidence of disproportionate vulnerability to suggestion among preschoolers has intrigued researchers, inspiring explanations on a number of different levels (e.g., Ackil & Zaragoza, 1995; Welch-Ross, Diecidue, & Miller, 1997; Principe & Ceci, 2002). Certainly, under some questioning conditions, social factors play a role in children's suggestibility. Young children, for example, may consciously bow to the suggestions of adult authority figures or mentally question the accuracy of their own recollections in the face of alternative suggestions from powerful adults (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). However, while under some conditions these social factors may give rise to or enhance children's report distortion, there is compelling evidence that fundamental cognitive elements of memory also are affected by misleading information in children's environments.

In the present discussion of factors involved in childhood amnesia, one particular explanation for the suggestibility of children's memory is of central relevance. This is the hypothesis that poor source monitoring skills cause children to make the memorial errors that distort their reports. Source monitoring refers to the ability to identify the origin of one's own beliefs and memories. Across a number of experimental paradigms, preschoolers show particular difficulty doing so, commonly making source misattribution errors. For example, in one paradigm, participants are asked either to perform or to imagine performing a number of actions (e.g., standing up, touching their noses). After doing so, younger children are more likely than older children to make source misattributions; they remember performing actions that they only imagined, and vice versa (e.g., Foley & Johnson, 1985; Welch-Ross, 1995a). Similarly, young children have difficulty remembering the circumstances under which they acquired new information. Taylor, Esbensen, and Bennett (1994) conducted a series of studies exploring this phenomenon. They found that, after learning novel facts, 4-year-olds incorrectly stated, and acted as though they believed, that they had always known facts they had learned just minutes earlier. Thus, across tasks requiring source monitoring, young children often are unable to specify the original context in which they encountered information, although they accurately recall the information itself.

Theorists have hypothesized that source misattributions underlie the suggestibility effects induced by misleading information (e.g., Ceci et al., 1994; Robinson & Whitcombe, 2003; Schacter, Kagan, & Leichtman, 1995). In the simplest example of how this might occur, children may confuse facts or pictures they were given after an event with those that were part of the event. In suggestibility paradigms involving only verbal questions, repeated suggestive questions may induce children to create images of suggested events while they are being interviewed. During subsequent questioning (e.g., during the fifth interview after Sam Stone's visit or after multiple visualizations in Ceci, Loftus, et al.'s, 1994, card drawing paradigm), children may call to mind the images inspired during past interviews. In doing so, children may have difficulty identifying the origins of these images; that is, they may confuse these internally generated mental pictures with the actual events they experienced. Younger participants may be particularly prone to this confusion, just as they make source misattribution errors with exaggerated frequency under other circumstances.

A set of experiments focusing on 3- to 4-year-olds illustrates the potential contribution of source monitoring to suggestibility effects. In the original study, once each week for 10 weeks, children participated in an interview in which they were asked to draw from the same group of cards. Half of the cards described real events that occurred in the children's classrooms, while the other half referenced events that never happened in the children's lives (Ceci, Huffman, Smith, & Loftus, 1994). During each one-on-one session with a researcher, the children drew one card at a time until all of the cards had been drawn. After the children drew each card, the researcher read the event described on the card aloud, and asked, "Think real hard, and tell me; did that ever happen to you?" After children answered this question with a "yes" or "no." they moved on to the next card. In the 11th and final week, a new interviewer queried children, asking a similar question for each card. In this session, however, the interviewer also asked children to elaborate. If children said that events on the cards had happened to them, the researcher asked them to tell him or her all about these events. Further, the researcher asked detailed follow-up questions after each open-ended question.

The results indicated that, by the final interview, more than one third of children reported remembering an event that never actually occurred; in most cases, events they originally denied remembering. Moreover, the children's inaccurate reports were internally consistent, full of vivid detail, and accompanied by a confident attitude. When condition-blind adult raters were asked to discriminate between the children's accurate and inaccurate memories, they were unable to do so at a level above chance.

A second study focused on the emotional nature of the imagined events, and how this might influence the children's susceptibility to incorporating the events into memory (Ceci, Loftus, Leichtman, & Bruck, 1994). Here, the manipulation was a bit more heavy handed; during the weekly sessions, researchers actively encouraged children to visualize events to which they acquiesced. The suggested events were either positive (getting a present), neutral (waiting for a bus), or negative (falling off a tricycle and cutting one leg). The results indicated that, while children were quite accurate from start to finish in reporting on the events that had actually occurred, the mean false assent rate (or rate of commission errors) rose dramatically across interviews. Three- to 4-year-olds and 5- to 6-year-olds showed similar increases in false assents across interviews, although in accordance with common development trends in suggestibility, younger children had a higher rate of baseline errors. Notably, all types of events were subject to the effects of imagining, although not equally so—negative events reflected fewer commission errors than positive. Thus, emotional content may be among the parameters that influence the difficulty of discriminating real from imagined events.

Studies of both source monitoring and suggestibility have shown substantial individual differences among children. On both types of tasks, even the performance of children in the most error-prone preschool age group varies widely; while participants on the whole make a substantial number of errors, there are individuals who consistently resist suggestions and correctly identify the origins of their past experiences. Schacter, Kagan, and Leichtman (1995) noted that children's source monitoring problems and memorial suggestibility were similar to the source amnesia and high rates of false recognition found among adults with frontal lobe damage. Given this parallel, Schacter et al. suggested that both the phenomena of suggestibility and source misattributions might be caused by immature frontal lobe development in preschoolers. Individual differences between children on both types of tasks could then be explained by differential maturity of the frontal regions.

Support for this provocative suggestion required evidence of a direct relationship between source monitoring and suggestibility performance in young children. Thus, Leichtman and Morse (1997) conducted a series of experiments to examine this relationship. In each study, the same forty-five 3- to 5-year-old children were given several traditional source monitoring tasks as well as multiple tasks measuring memorial suggestibility. In an illustrative study (Leichtman & Morse, 1997, Study 2), researchers gave children two measures of source monitoring, and two measures of suggestibility. The first source monitoring task was an adaptation of Gopnik and Graf's (1988) paradigm, in which a researcher showed children a set of six small drawers, each containing a different small object. Children learned what was inside each drawer by either being told, guessing from a clue provided them, or opening the drawer. Just after learning the drawers' contents, the researcher asked children to identify the object inside each of the closed drawers. Immediately afterward, he or she asked them to tell him or her how they learned what was inside each drawer; by seeing the object, being told about it, or guessing it with a clue.

The second source monitoring task was an adaptation of the do-imagine task designed by Foley and Johnson (1985). A researcher led children through a series of simple actions, and asked them either to actually perform or to imagine performing each one. After completing the entire list, the researcher asked the children to list all of the actions they remembered performing or imagining. Finally, she reminded the children of each of the actions, and asked whether they had performed or imagined each.

The first suggestibility task was a version of the misinformation paradigm often given to adults. Researchers showed children a narrated slide show story that included several target events. One day after they viewed the story, an interviewer asked children misleading questions about it. One week later, another interviewer gave children a forced-choice picture recognition task including the suggested detail and the original information. This forced-choice task required children to identify which was the original object they had seen in the story.

The second suggestibility task was similar to the visualization paradigm developed by Ceci and colleagues (Bruck, Ceci, & Hembrooke, 1997; Ceci, Huffman, et al., 1994; Ceci, Loftus, et al., 1994). Children were questioned once per week about the same six events; three events that they actually experienced, and three events that never happened (e.g., a boy visited school with a little puppy; a teacher found $100 under a slide). Each week, children drew the events from a hat in random order. A researcher asked children whether each occurred, and then asked them to imagine the events that they said did not occur. A final interview occurred during the 7th week, when another researcher asked children to tell whether each event occurred and then to elaborate on what they remembered about the event.

The results of this series of tasks show a compelling pattern of connection between children's source monitoring skills and their ability to resist memorial suggestion. As expected, scores indicating accurate source identification on the two source monitoring tasks (i.e., the drawer and do-imagine tasks) were highly correlated with each other (r = .62). Scores indicating the ability to resist suggestion on the two disparate suggestibility tasks (i.e., the traditional story misinformation paradigm and visualization task) also were significantly correlated (r = .34). The four critical correlations—between each of the source monitoring tasks and each of the suggestibility tasks—all were highly significant (p < .001), ranging between -.75 and -.85. Thus, the better children were at identifying the context in which they acquired knowledge in the source monitoring tasks, the less vulnerable they were to suggestion.

Importantly, measures indexing simple recognition of story details and recall of actions performed were not significantly related to either source monitoring skills or suggestibility. It appears that the relationship between suggestibility and source monitoring was not simply the outcome of globally better memory among some children; the two measures were more specifically related. Although this relationship is not definitive evidence of frontal lobe control of both processes, it strongly supports the theoretical possibility. Other aspects of children's cognitive development that contribute to the variance in suggestibility performance also may be either directly or indirectly related to improvements in frontal lobe functioning. For example, Welch-Ross and colleagues have provided evidence that children's understanding of conflicting mental representations in theory of mind tasks also show strong correlations with suggestibility scores (Welch-Ross et al., 1997). Whether these are an outgrowth of improvements in source monitoring skills or independent contributors to their development remains to be seen.

The cumulative literature on children's suggestibility and source monitoring has suggested that matu-rational processes significantly influence whether children are prone to incorporating "false memories" into their autobiographical repertoires. This literature also has provided an alternative perspective on the timing of childhood amnesia. The strict measure of autobiographical memory in adulthood is whether memories respond to explicit, verbal cueing. For example, researchers ask participants questions such as, "Tell me about an event that you remember from childhood?" "What do you remember about the birth of your younger brother?" "Remember the events of your third birthday?" These are the questions in response to which participants have a reliable dearth of memories from the first 3 to 6 years of life, and which reflect between-culture differences in terms of age boundaries.

Developmental findings pertaining to suggestibility and source monitoring inspire the following notion. The memories that children encode may not consistently respond to the kind of cues that adult autobiographical memory tasks offer until children reach a critical level of frontal lobe maturity. Young children may fail to integrate the larger context in which an experience occurs with the core facts of that experience. Ironically, when adults are asked to retrieve childhood memories, the context itself is often the cue intended to trigger personal event memories. For example, asking an adult to remember the events of her third birthday is, in some sense, akin to asking a child who has participated in Gopnik and Graf's (1988) drawer task to "remember that thing that you guessed one day with a clue." Many young children are unable to identify how they acquired information about a known object (e.g., by guessing), even minutes after doing so. Thus, it is unlikely, that being provided with the context cue (e.g., "an object you guessed") would enable these children to recall an object they had otherwise forgotten. In other words, because the associations between context and object are weak, one is unlikely to serve as an effective retrieval cue for the other over the long-term. According to this logic, the problem is not simply that adults fail to access early memories because they do not label them within useful specific contexts during childhood (e.g., "something that's happening now, while I'm 3 years old"). The problem is that the link between the context and the content of the memory is weak at encoding, and this context is exactly to cue that explicit narrative recall tasks typically provide.

This way of thinking about the cues provided in adult narrative tasks suggests a connection between disparate findings on the development of source monitoring and adult personal event narratives. Notably, adults' earliest autobiographical memories typically begin during the period from 3 to 5 years. This is the same period in which source monitoring skills dramatically improve, and in which children become significantly more accurate in discriminating real from suggested events (Welch-Ross, 1995b). Further, this period signifies the upper cusp of a developmental shift from implicit, behaviorally expressed memories to explicit, verbally accessible ones. Newcombe, Drummey, Fox, Lie, & Ottinger-Alberts (2000) noted that when a child's explicit memory trace for real events is weak, in toto, discriminating between real and imagined events becomes exceptionally difficult. Elements of the explicit trace that could support a judgment that the event was real may be missing. This is important to recognize in view of the fact that explicit event representations during the preschool years are likely to be weaker than later on in development. When coupled with data suggesting that young children may sometimes vividly imagine false events (Ceci, Loftus, Leichtman, & Bruck, 1994), the potential for error in event memory during this period becomes clear. A close, lucid, explicitly retrievable connection between context and the socially-deemed central elements of experience provides the best conditions for storage and retrieval of event representations over the long term. These conditions are unlikely to be fully met for memories encoded in the earliest years of life.

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