Child Witnesses Can Be Easily Manipulated, New Study

Elaine Radford

Child witnesses can be remarkably easy to manipulate, according to research from the UK's University of Hertfordshire, which will be presented this week at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference. Based on their findings, you could almost say that it's child's play to get the kid to give you the description that you're looking for.

Psychologist Liz Kirk explained that it was a video-based study. Children were asked to watch a video about a woman wearing a hat and then were asked what she wore. If the researcher asked the question while making the gestures of someone putting on an invisible hat, the kids said, sure, the lady's wearing a hat.

However, if the researcher made a gesture of someone putting on glasses while asking the question, a staggering 93 percent of the children said that the lady had been wearing glasses. Yikes.

The ongoing scandal of wrongful convictions in the United States has made it clear for years that there's something terribly wrong with eyewitness testimony.

For instance, Brian Banks spent five years in prison for a rape he didn't commit before getting a chance to try out for the NFL.

New Yorker David Ranta, wrongly convicted of murder, spent 23 years in prison before being exonerated. Already 58 when he was released in March, he experienced a heart attack less than two days later.

There's no reason to expect child witnesses to be any better than adults, and a previous study at Queen's University suggested that most judges assume that children are "honest but unreliable." Many children already have active imaginations. Combine that with the power of suggestion, and you could have legal dynamite.

Yet, every year an estimated 100,000 children testify in a civil, criminal, or family court somewhere in the United States.

If an interviewer can solicit a wrong description of a perpetrator just with a simple gesture, a child witness could be not just unreliable but dangerous.

[photo courtesy Harvey Henkelmann via Wikipedia Commons]