Children’s Memory Errors Can Increase with Age, Study Finds

In an article in the May 2008 issue of Psychological Bulletin, Valerie F. Reyna, a human development professor, and Charles J. Brainerd, a human development and law school professor, conclude that some of the memory skills children develop as they grow may actually render them more susceptible to certain kinds of memory errors. The article is entitled, “Developmental Reversals in False Memory: A Review of Data and Theory.”

Earlier research seemed to indicate that susceptibility to memory distortion declined between early childhood and young adulthood. However, by analyzing experiments over the past five years, Reyna and Brainerd have found systematic exceptions to the notion that false memory declines with age.

In fact, Reyna and Brainerd state that their research shows that false memories can increase markedly between early childhood and young adulthood. For, while it appears that the ability to suppress false memories improves between early childhood and young adulthood, the capacity to accept false memories also increases, they say. Thus, under some conditions, older children and adults may be more vulnerable to memory suggestions than was previously thought.

Reyna and Brainerd explain their conclusions within the framework of “Fuzzy Trace Theory,” a theory they have spent years developing. The theory posits that memory is captured and recorded in two distinct parts of the brain. Part of the brain stores what they label “verbatim traces” or “what actually happened” and the other part records “gist traces” or “the meaning of what happened.”

Accessing “gist traces” can stimulate false memories inconsistent with what actually happened. According to Reyna, “When gist traces are especially strong, they can produce phantom recollections—that is, illusory, vivid recollections of things that did not happen, such as remembering a robber brandished a weapon and made threatening statements.”

As people grow older, they start storing more “gist traces”—memories based on their understanding of what happened or what the event meant to them, rather than what actually happened. Whether a false memory is expressed can depend on whether verbatim memory or gist traces are accessed.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, now-famous studies (many also at Cornell) found remarkable development of false memories when interviewers attempted to mislead young children about the children’s own experiences. Nothing in the new research suggests those studies were flawed. Rather, it suggests lawyers, judges, and juries should look for memory error even when the witness is not a young child, and even when the witness has not undergone suggestive questioning.

Forensic child interviewers have spent much energy in recent years learning to ask open-ended questions, rather than questions that can be answered “yes” or “no” or by choosing among alternatives provided in the question. If a witness has a false memory because of Fuzzy Trace Theory, though, open-ended questioning cannot detect the error or help the witness overcome it. In fact, Reyna and Brainerd suggest that closed-end questions (“recognition tests,” in the parlance of psychological research) might provide better retrieval cues for verbatim traces than open-ended questions do.

Brainerd and Reyna have developed mathematical models that predict when a person will access verbatim memory rather than gist memory. The models can be used to determine ways forensic interviewers can raise the odds witnesses will access verbatim memory. Research has found that using neutral prompts or returning a person to the scene of the event in a neutral way can help access verbatim memory.