Remembering what never occurred? Children’s false memories for repeated experiences

“Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.”

“Yes, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn't possibly have happened.”

─ Miss Prism and Cecily conversing about Cecily’s diary in Oscar Wilde’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest”, from 1895.


In 2016 a thirteen-year-old girl identified as Autumn approached the police in Keighley, England, with a sexual abuse account. She reported that she had been sexually abused by 12 different men for over 13 months between 2011 and 2012, when she was only 8-9 years old. Despite details she provided the officers with, they did not believe her [1]. Was it because she was a teenager? Or because she was too young when the alleged abuse happened? There are many legal cases like this, in which children’s testimonies could play a crucial role in the investigation process. In the legal system, however, children have oftentimes been labelled as suggestible and unreliable witnesses [2][3][4]. Additionally, contrary to what television shows tell us, child sexual abuse cases often lack corroborating forensic evidence, such as DNA and documentation of the abuse. Hence, legal decision makers must often base their verdict solely on verbal statements [5].

Research has demonstrated that children can be as consistent as adults when it comes to their capacity of producing reliable statements [6]. However, their testimonies can sometimes be riddled with falsities caused by unintentional errors made by practitioners when conducting interviews. These mistakes, such as providing information that was not divulged by the interviewee and coercing them to respond to a question in a specific way, might compromise the quality of the statement. This can induce the interviewee to form memories of non-experienced events [i.e. false memories; 7].

Lab studies have shown that people can create rich and compelling false memories, even for highly negative events. In legal cases, these events are sometimes remembered as a repeated experience. How can this be? Can people create false memories of events that they believe happened to them numerous times? This article aims to clarify how easily such false memories can be formed. Specifically, we will focus on events that allegedly happened repeatedly, focusing on the formation of children’s false memories. To understand the relevance of this, we will first present an important legal case on child sexual abuse, in which children’s testimony and false memories played a pivotal role.

Children’s False Memories in Court,_Nebraska_courthouse_courtroom_2.JPG

The McMartin Preschool was a complex case in the 1980’s which involved multiple child sexual abuse allegations that were later deemed to be false. This case is a prominent example of how statements for false repeated experiences can appear reliable and detailed, as well as how investigations can proceed without evidence, when multiple witnesses come up with similar stories. The case started with one child’s report, growing to over a hundred reports from children enrolled that year and former students of the same preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. Many of these children declared to have been victims of sexual abuse by the McMartin preschool’s staff [8]. Children from other schools charged their teachers as well, bringing the number of alleged abused children, during the investigation, to over 1400 in the state of California [9]. The apparent consistency between the reports, the level of details presented and high number of involved children, made practitioners (i.e., clinical psychologists, social assistants, legal professionals, police) believe in the credibility of the allegations. However, there were several factors that these professionals were not aware of that likely contaminated the children’s testimonies.

To start, the statement from the first allegedly abused child was made by a parent who later was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. After this statement, the police sent a letter to 200 families. In this letter parents were warned that their children could have also been abused and were also requested to ask their children specific questions concerning the matter. However, research shows that parents often unintentionally ask children questions in a suggestive manner that leads to false reports and might jeopardize children’s memories. This is shown by the fact that children can eventually start to believe and remember the suggested events [10][11].

Additionally, interviews with children conducted by social workers were rather suggestive, leading legal practitioners to conclude that children were practically coerced to say that the abuse had taken place. For instance, even after answering a question (e.g., “no”), children were forced to continue thinking about it until the interviewer was satisfied with the answer. The following is an example of such suggestive procedure:

Interviewer: Can you remember the naked pictures?

Child: (Shakes head ‘‘no’’)

Interviewer: Can’t remember that part?

Child: (Shakes head ‘‘no’’)

Interviewer: Why don’t you think about that for a while, okay? Your memory might come back to you. [12, p. 28]

Also, sometimes when children did give a satisfying answer, they were positively reinforced by, for example stating, “Well done, I knew you were smart enough to remember” [12, p. 27]. These and other types of suggestive prompts have been shown to increase the chance for false reports [12][13]. In order to avoid this, experts agree that interviewers should add as little information as possible when asking children to state as much as they can about what happened. The use of open prompts such as “Tell me what happened”, for example, can encourage children to provide trustworthy information in a narrative form. Only later in the interview, if necessary to clarify a few points, the interviewer could use recognition prompts based on the child’s narrative [14]. If the child had mentioned in their account that they were in their room, for instance, a recognition prompt such as “You previously mentioned that you were in your room when it happened, can you tell me more about this?” could be used.

Many children in this case went along with these suggestive prompts, leading their testimonies to contain some bizarre elements, for instance experiencing satanic rituals, seeing witches fly in brooms and children being flushed down toilets. False memory researchers suggested that the (repetitive) interviewing process of this case might have led children to agree with the proposed suggestions, and possibly form false memories [7].

The McMartin case ran from 1983 to 1990 and the State of California spent over 16 million dollars on a seven-year-investigation [8]. However, because there was no physical evidence that corroborated the statements given by children, the case was closed without any convictions. The considerable amount of cases with a similar nature to this one (varying in severity, number of alleged victims, etc.) stresses that the McMartin preschool is not an exceptional case [15]. Assuming that the children’s allegations are in fact false, there are serious questions about how such detailed statements could be obtained. One possibility is that children merely acquiesced to the investigators’ suggestions. Another even more disturbing possibility is that (some of) the children came to truly believe what they were alleging, despite its falsity. For the latter possibility, a chief question underlying this case is how children can create false memories for events that happened more than once. To understand this, we first have to explain how children’s false memories are elicited in psychology laboratories.

Children’s False Memories in the Lab

Considering what was stated above, it is possible that in the McMartin preschool case, interviewers influenced children leading to false reports and possibly false memories of sexual abuse that never happened. Because of cases such as this one, scientists constructed methods to investigate whether it was possible to implant false memories for entire events, followed by research designed to examine the mechanisms underlying false memories. After concluding it was, scientists attempted to also find out the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. It is important to note that there are different types of false memories and different ways of eliciting them. Among the main methods to produce false memories, there are: the Deese-Roediger-McDermott word list paradigm (DRM) [16][17], misinformation paradigm [18], and implantation (lost-in-the-mall) paradigm [19]. While false memories elicited by the DRM word list and misinformation methods concentrate on false memories of details of a situation, the implantation method [19] focuses on forming false memories of entire events. The latter method has been created to investigate the ease by which false memories for an entire event can be generated.

Implantation paradigm. Also known as “lost-in-the-mall”, this method is especially interesting for the current paper because it mimics the situation found in cases like the McMartin Preschool. This implantation method [19] starts with the experimenter collecting experiences that truly happened during the participant’s childhood with their family (i.e., often parents). Subsequently, an experience that never happened (a false event manufactured by the experimenters) is mixed with the true autobiographical narratives. Experimenters suggest to participants that false and true events happened to them in their childhood – and, to increase the credibility of the claims, that their parents have confirmed this. After this phase, participants must report everything they can remember about all these childhood experiences. On average over several studies, approximately 30% of participants indicate that they remember the false event [20].

The first study using this method was conducted by Loftus and Pickrell [19]. They used a sample of 24 participants and for each one a booklet containing four short narratives about their childhood was given. Crucially, one of the narratives was false and concerned getting lost in a big shopping mall around the age of five, crying a lot, being found by an elderly person, and reunited with the family. Participants were interviewed about these narratives on two separate occasions. Twenty-five percent of the total sample eventually reported to have remembered the false event and were confident that it happened to them.

After the first study, memory researchers examined different factors that could affect the formation of these implanted false memories. For example, research has shown that in children, negative false events are easier to implant than neutral ones [21]. In this study, 7-year-old children (n = 72) listened to three narratives, two true and one false. The false narrative could be either neutral (moving to another classroom) or negative (being accused by the teacher of cheating). Each child went through two interview sessions, with a week between them. Besides showing that some children formed rich false memories, the most important finding was that the negative false event elicited more false memories than the false neutral one.

An important remark is that the studies using the implantation method have focused on the implantation of a false event that presumably happened once. However, many of the legal cases brought to court concern alleged victims who talk about memories of abuse for repeated experiences. The McMartin preschool case is an example of such cases. Another line of false memory research has shown that false memories for repeated events can also be created [22].

False Memories for Repeated Experiences

As mentioned above, there is research comparing the formation of children’s false memories for events that happened once (i.e., single) versus more than once (i.e., repeated) [23][24][25][26]. Scientists have found evidence to support that children can be suggestible to form false memories for single and repeated experiences. Connolly and Price [23] conducted a study in which they hypothesized that the association between different details of the same repeated experience could help to explain these discrepant findings. In this study, preschool (4- and 5-year-olds) and first grade children (6- and 7-year-olds) were assigned to join either a single play session or four repeated play sessions. In both the single and the repeated group, for each one of the 8 playing sessions, 2 critical items were presented to children, totaling 16 critical details. In one of the 8 possible playing sessions, children were instructed to reach for water (critical item 1) and pretend to be a dog (critical item 2). Two weeks later, children received misinformation regarding half of the critical details. The day after, they were asked to freely remember details about one specific session and following that they received cues to help them remember. The 6-7-year-olds of the repeated event group were more suggestible to create false memories than those in the single-event group, particularly for high-association details. Similarly, for 4-5-year-olds, they were more suggestible to form false memories in the repeated event condition than single-event participants, but only for low-association details. So, this study showed that memories for repeated experiences can be quite fragile and susceptible to false memory formation.

It is important to note that this and similar studies did not use a false memory implantation method. Instead they examined (false) memory performance for events that were truly experienced. Specifically, they investigated false memories for minor details, making their procedure different from implantation method that focuses on false memories for entire events. Nonetheless, these studies are informative to provide an idea of how false memories for repeated experience are produced. Some of them have demonstrated that children who experienced repeated events are more prone to produce false memories than children who experience a single event [27][28]. For instance, another study by Price and Connolly [28] engaged ninety 4-5-year-olds in either one or four playing sessions. Subsequently, when children were interviewed (in a suggestive way) about the playing sessions, half of the recalled details was wrong. This study revealed that children assigned to the repeated condition group reported more mistakes about their playing experience than those assigned to the single condition group.

These findings fit with one of the main theories to explain the formation of false memories: Fuzzy Trace Theory [FTT; 2; 29]. According to this theory, when experiencing an event, two independent memory traces are formed: gist and verbatim. Gist traces involve the general meaning of an event (e.g., being robbed) and can be retrieved even after a long delay [30]. Verbatim traces include the precise details of an experience (e.g., color of a perpetrator’s outfit) and fade rapidly. This is why people can have difficulties to retrieve specific details about an event as time passes. When this is the case, they rely mainly on the general meaning of what happened. This can contribute to the creation of wrong associations between the memory of an event (e.g., believing the perpetrator had long hair, when they actually were bald) and new information, that despite being associated to the occasion, is not what was experienced.

When an event is repeatedly experienced, people form a script for this event, which is a mental representation of the general sequence of elements that are part of the repeated experience. These details are commonly associated with the location and the event itself. An example of a script of a cinema trip could be: buy tickets, eat popcorn, and watch the film. When scripts are formed, the specific details of an event are harder to retrieve, and people usually rely more on the gist of the whole sequence of events. Therefore, when exposed to repeated experiences it is difficult for people to distinguish the verbatim traces from one specific experience from other experiences pertaining to a repeated event. In other words, individuals find it difficult to identify specific incidents of a repeated experience. This leads people to rely on the meaning of the event as a whole (gist traces), forgetting about important pieces of the different occasions (verbatim traces). Therefore, this lack of verbatim traces and reliance on gist traces can fuel the formation of false memories [30].

Concluding Remarks

The findings on children’s memories described in this paper demonstrate what was wisely denounced by the bright character from Oscar Wilde, Cecily: Memory is a fragile and malleable faculty. Throughout this brief discussion, we have shown that it is possible to implant false events in children’s memory. In light of the points raised in this article, it seems crucial to educate legal professionals, clinicians and the general public with what has been presented regarding the functioning of memory and its malleability. Such as the McMartin preschool case, when cases of possible false memories for sexual abuse appear in the legal system, false accusations can cause a considerable waste of time and money to governments. Besides the waste of time and money invested in the public service for these type of cases, we should also consider the harm caused to individuals’ lives and their families. In addition, the practice of suggestive interviewing techniques affects real victims of sexual abuse cases by diluting the true cases with false cases which undermine trust in testimony. Children are definitely capable of recounting traumatic events, but with poor interview techniques, their memories can be tainted and even more so when it pertains to memories for repeated experiences.



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