Memory Retrieval // 227
1997), Her studies have used research models in which children
undergo relatively traumatic events (for instance, getting vacci-
nated) or embarrassing experiences (for instance, having a geni-
tal exam as part of a physical at the doctor’s of ce) and in which
the kids are then interviewed about their experiences. The inter-
views follow procedures that mimic those in legal settings, includ-
ing the use of anatomically correct dolls, leading questions (such
as, “Did the doctor touch you here?”), and even criminal lineups
where the children are asked to identify the perpetrator of the
“crime” (“Who gave you the shot?”). The results of these studies
demonstrate that children over the age of 4 are very unlikely to
falsely report genital touching; only about 8 percent of children
gave such false reports.
Although Goodman’s research suggests that very few children
spontaneously (and falsely) report genital touching, consider that
even the low rate of 8 percent could lead to false accusations.
Surely, the case of Thomas Kennedy tells us that even one false
report can have tragic consequences. Importantly, children’s mis-
taken memories are problematic only if the fact nders in a case
(police, investigators, prosecutors, and jurors) are unable to deter-
mine whether children’s recollections are true or false. Can adults
determine if a child is telling the truth?
A recent study probed this key question. Goodman and her
colleagues (Block & others, 2012) showed adults videos in which
children were interviewed about memories for positive events
(for instance, getting a new toy, going to Disneyland) and negative
events (being punished for throwing a rock through a window,
having another child pull the child’s pants down in front of a store).
None of the children were told to lie, but some spontaneously
claimed that they had experienced events that they had not, and
some denied experiencing events that they had (based on the par-
ents’ reports). The researchers found that adults did a fairly good
job of recognizing true reports and rejecting false reports (Block &
others, 2012). However, they also discovered that adults were
likely to believe children who made false denials: If a child (falsely)
said that an event had not happened, adults generally thought the
child was telling the truth. This nding is especially troubling in
light of research showing that false denials may be a common
feature of child sexual abuse claims. Indeed, one study found that
even in cases in which there was substantial evidence of abuse—
for example, medical evidence, a perpetrator’s confession, or
multiple victim complaints against the accused—20 percent of
children denied at some point during the investigation that abuse
had occurred (Malloy, Lyon, & Quas, 2007).
Are children’s memories reliable?
How does stress in uence mem-
ory accuracy? Are children espe-
cially susceptible to coercion
and suggestion? Can adults dif-
ferentiate truth from falsehood
when listening to children’s ac-
counts? These are all important
topics of research in psychol-
ogy. The answers remain contro-
versial in both the scienti c
literature and the courtroom
(Bruck & Ceci, 2012; Klemfuss
& Ceci, 2012a, 2012b).
What Do You Think?
If a child told you about an
experience of sexual abuse,
what would you do? Why?
Should children’s accounts
of sexual abuse be believed
more often than not?
they sought independent corroboration by others. They were able to identify actual cases
in which the perpetrator or some third party could verify a discovered memory. For
example, Frank Fitzpatrick forgot abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, but his report
of the abuse, years later, was corroborated by witnesses who had also been abused ( Com-
monwealth of Massachusetts v. Porter, 1993). The existence of such cases suggests that
it is inappropriate to reject all claims by adults that they were victims of long-forgotten
childhood sexual abuse.
How do psychologists consider these cases? Generally, there is consensus on a few
key issues (Knapp & VandeCreek, 2000). First, all agree that child sexual abuse is an
important and egregious problem that historically has not been acknowledged. Second,
psychologists widely believe that most individuals who were sexually abused as children
remember all or part of what happened to them and that these continuous memories are
likely to be accurate. Third, there is broad agreement that it is possible for someone who
was abused to forget those memories for a long time, and it is also possible to construct
memories that are false but that feel very real to an individual. Finally, it is highly dif-
cult to separate accurate from inaccurate memories, especially if methods such as hyp-
nosis have been used in the “recovery” of memories. We might think that a great deal
of mystery would be removed if only cases of abuses were reported immediately rather
than many years later. In such cases, very often children’s accounts of their memories
for the abuse serve as a crucial piece of evidence. Are their memories likely to be accu-
rate? Challenge Your Thinking reviews these complex issues.
When Eyes Deceive
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