Same interviewer, better memories

As a case proceeds, police officers, lawyers, and others may interview children who witness a crime. However, youngsters may remember details more accurately if the same person conducts successive interviews with them, according to a study in the September/October Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Shortly after viewing a video of a staged theft, 46 kindergartners, 60 second graders, and 64 adults described the incident for an interviewer. The interviewer asked half of the participants questions designed to be misleading about the critical details of the theft. The rest received straightforward questions. Two days later, the participants again described the incident, and all answered the same set of 20 three-choice questions about it posed by either the previous or a new interviewer.

Memory accuracy and resistance to misleading questions improved with age, reports a team led by psychologist David F. Bjorklund of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Moreover, memory errors rose after 2 days only for those who had a new interviewer, an effect most pronounced for the groups of kids. This finding surprised the researchers. They suggest that a familiar interviewer may act as a memory cue for previously recalled information.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.