Making Memories: Adults’ and children’s ability to recall the particularisation details of past events and the role of speculation.
Westgate, Shannon Bennet
Historical claims of sexual abuse often involve highly detailed descriptions of the alleged events (Conway 2013; Howe & Knott, 2015). Such descriptions might include information about the weather, people’s clothing, and what both the alleged victim and others thought, said, and felt during the event in question (Howe, 2013a, 2013b). Research indicates similar details in eyewitness reports are likely to be perceived by jurors as sign of accuracy (e.g., Bell & Loftus, 1985, 1989). Given that the delay between the alleged event and a trial can sometimes span decades, it is prudent to question the veracity of these types of details. In this thesis, I conducted a series of experiments to illuminate the likelihood of adults accurately recalling the types of specific details that are often contained in delayed reports of childhood sexual abuse. In the first two experiments, I used an experimental analogue to examine the detail contained in individuals’ reports of past events. In the final two experiments, I explored the potential influence of speculation about the details of past events on individuals’ recollections of events over time. I used both a prospective and retrospective approach, and examined memory for specific detail in childhood—which corresponds to the period of development during which memories of abuse are established, as well as in adulthood— which is when historical claims are reported in court. In Experiment 1 (Chapter 5), I examined adults’ ability to recall the types of details that are often included historical claims of abuse, and that investigators often use to differentiate between individual instances of this abuse (particularisation details). To achieve this goal, participants were interviewed about the details of four significant past events—their first day of school, their first kiss, losing their virginity and their first day of university—on two separate occasions, 6 to 8 weeks apart. Participants were unable to answer over half of the particularisation questions about their first day of school and their first kiss. Furthermore, across all four of the events, when participants did answer these questions, many of their responses were not consistent over time. In Experiment 2 (Chapter 6), I examined whether children can encode and retain the particularisation details of a novel experience. Children were interviewed about the particularisation details of a visit to the police station, either 1 to 2 days after it occurred, 6 to 8 weeks after, or on both of these occasions. Although participants answered many of the particularisation questions 1 to 2 days after the event, the accuracy of their responses significantly decreased over the delay. Despite this decrease in accuracy, children’s willingness to answer the particularisation questions did not decrease with time, nor did the amount of information that participants provided. Given that particularisation details were relatively unlikely to be encoded and retained over time, I then turned to a possible post-event influence that could account for the presence of these details in historical abuse claims: speculation. In Experiment 3 (Chapter 7), I considered the influence of speculation on children’s reports of a past event. One to two days after visiting their local police station, children were asked to speculate about the particularisation details of the visit. Six to eight weeks later, children were re-interviewed about these details to examine whether speculative information had become integrated with their reports of the event, and whether this differed as a function of whether the speculation was invited or voluntary. On average, 10% of voluntary speculation responses and 10% of invited speculation responses were repeated as fact during the second interview. In Experiment 4 (Chapter 8), adults were interviewed about the particularisation details of the same four events examined in Experiment 1—their first day of school, their first kiss, losing their virginity and their first day of university. This time, however, they were also asked to speculate about the details they could not recall. When participants were re-interviewed about these details after a 6- to 8-week delay, 20% of the voluntary speculation responses and 13% of the invited speculation responses from the first interview were repeated as fact. Taken together, these data suggest that adults are unlikely to accurately recall the particularisation details of episodes of childhood sexual abuse that occurred many years ago. The present findings also indicate that self-generated speculation—either spontaneous or as a result of encouragement from others—could account, at least in part, for the presence of these details in historical claims of sexual abuse.
Advisor: Zajac, Rachel; Hayne, Harlene; Gross, Julien
Degree Name: Doctor of Philosophy
Degree Discipline: Psychology
Publisher: University of Otago
Keywords: Memory; details; sexual; abuse; speculation
Research Type: Thesis