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Understanding the Child Eyewitness II

Child eyewitnesses often see things very differently than adults do—but why?

Matthew J. Sharps
Source: Matthew J. Sharps

In our last Forensic View, we began to discuss the child eyewitness and the fact that although children see the same things that adults do, they may not see them in the same way.

But why not?

The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget formulated a broad theory of children’s cognitive development, which is still used today. Piaget’s theory is limited in many respects, which have been highlighted and corrected by more recent research, including some of my own early work with colleagues (e.g., Gollin & Sharps, 1987), but many of his findings have stood the test of time, at least within Western and many other cultures.

One of his most important principles is critically important to us here: This is the fact that cognitive development is a biological process as well as a psychological one, subject to evolutionary and ecological conditions. This means that the child is a different creature in brain and body than the adult; therefore, the child’s cognitive abilities are more suited to the tasks of the child as he or she grows along the developmental trajectory than they are to the tasks of the adult.

Unfortunately for the criminal investigator, a lot of childhood tasks are directly related to the child’s development, to their biological and psychological growth, rather than to the atypical, more adult task of providing accurate eyewitness testimony. This means that for young children, many of the abilities which adults take for granted are simply not there. Yet. Those abilities are not needed in normative development—yet. Hence the fact that young children are frequently extremely lousy eyewitnesses.

Space limitations prevent us from considering all of the factors which contribute to this problem in the criminal justice system; full consideration would require at least a book, and it frequently does. But for The Forensic View, let’s consider a few of the most important developmental factors that influence children’s eyewitness memory, or at least enough of these factors to demonstrate that a good understanding of developmental psychology should be part of every forensic psychologist’s professional repertoire.

In our last Forensic View, we considered a case that demonstrated the limitations on the abstraction powers of a young child; she was unable to use dolls as abstractions to demonstrate the details of her own molestation. But there are many other important elements of early childhood that may alter a child’s eyewitness memory:

Egocentrism

Although not all scholars agree with Piaget’s view (and my own work with E.S. Gollin [1987] demonstrated some of the limitations of Piaget’s viewpoint here), young children generally think egocentrically—which, for our purposes, means that typically if a preschooler can see something, the child assumes that you can see it too. And if the preschooler can’t see whatever it is, the child egocentrically, self-referentially assumes that you can’t see it either.

So, in a somewhat horrifying hypothetical, if a child saw a body in the hallway, but you could not see it from your perspective in the house, the child might be very willing to testify that, of course, you saw the dead person, but you did nothing about it. The child is certain you saw the corpse—everybody can see what I can see, thinks the preschooler. It’s hard to imagine an easier way to derail an investigation or to get you accused of lying to the police.

Animism

Young children tend to attribute living qualities to the nonliving. I recall a case in which an authoritarian mother smashed the toy car her preschool son had smuggled into a church. The child was not just sad—he was crying inconsolably, essentially in mourning.

"What’s wrong with him?" demanded his somewhat dictatorial parents. Simple. That little car was alive. It was his friend. Mom had not just broken his car; she had killed it. Its little Matchbox soul had gone off to Hot Wheels Heaven, never to return.

How is this relevant to the forensic realm? Well, consider our horrifying hypothetical above—if inanimate objects could actually be alive, could the same apply to a dead body? Could you trust our preschool witness as to whether or not the body in the hallway was actually alive or dead?

Anyone who’s ever seen the sad spectacle at a funeral of a child asking when the deceased grandparent was going to “wake up” can answer this question in the negative. Young children’s animism effectively and generally precludes an understanding of the nature of death. Normally, thankfully, that’s not a typical aspect of a child’s world, but in the case of homicide, this developmental factor assumes special significance.

Perceptual organization

The prefrontal cortex of the young child is, of course, not mature. This results in tunnel vision. Young children tend to centrate, to focus on the core of a situation rather than the situation’s periphery. This is one reason preschoolers have so many accidents; they’re so centrated, so focused on how cool the tunnel into the old basement is, that they completely fail to notice the dangerous bricks hanging loosely up above.

This means that as a child focuses on the body in the hallway, in the center of the child's field of view, the murderer skulking off to one side might remain completely unnoticed as he or she goes free.

Preschoolers also tend to focus on salient stimuli, on things that stand out perceptually, rather than on the less salient elements of any scene; if a costumed clown stabs somebody, the preschooler may focus on the clown costume rather than on the murder.

Egocentrism, animism, and perceptual organization—developmental differences in all of these may render a child’s eyewitness account wildly inaccurate. But these are only elements of relatively low-level aspects of the child’s information processing systems. Higher-level elements of children’s cognition, in the realm of cognitive organization and interpretation, can also alter a young child’s view of an eyewitness situation into something else entirely. And this will be the subject of our next Forensic View.

References

Gollin, E.S., & Sharps, M.J. (1987). Visual Perspective-Taking in Young Children: Reduction of Egocentric Errors by Induction of Strategy. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 25, 433-437.

Piaget, J. (1956). The Child's Conception of Space. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sharps, M.J. (1992). Facilitation of Taxonomic Recall in Preschool Children. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 30, 137-139.

Sharps, M.J. (2017). Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law.

Sharps, M.J., & Gollin, E.S. (1985). Memory and the Syntagmatic-Paradigmatic shift: A Developmental Study of Priming Effects. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 23, 95-97.

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