In findings that could impact crime cases involving young children, Cornell University researchers report that preschoolers can come to truly believe fictitious events if they are questioned repeatedly about them.
Even more surprising, the study notes, more than a quarter of the children couldn't be convinced later by either researchers or their parents that the event never occurred.
"When children are repeatedly interviewed over the course of weeks and months with misleading statements, which sometimes occurs in forensic cases, many come to remember the false events as true and provide detailed and coherent narratives about these false events," said psychology professor Stephen J. Ceci.
"So compelling did the children's narratives appear that we suspected that some of the children had come to truly believe they had experienced the fictitious events," he added. "Neither parents nor researchers were able to convince 27 percent of the children that the events never happened."
The study involved children ages 3 and 4. They were asked questions such as, "Did you ever get your hand caught in a mousetrap and go to the hospital to get it off?"
Ceci, a research development psychologist who reported the findings with colleague Mary LynCrotteaucq Huffman in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said the children seem to forget the source of the event over time.
When first confronted with the question they imagine a scenario but reject it because it is unfamiliar, he explained. With repeated questioning, though, the imagined scenario becomes familiar and "source amnesia" leads the young child to begin accepting it as real.
"Consequently it is exceedingly, devilishly difficult for professionals to tell fact from fiction when a child has been repeatedly suggestively interviewed over a long period of time," Ceci said. -- Mike Vogel