How suggestible are preschool children? Cognitive and social factors

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1997 Jul;36(7):948-58. doi: 10.1097/00004583-199707000-00017.


Objectives: In this series of studies, the authors sought to determine some of the cognitive and social boundary conditions that can undermine the accuracy of young children's reporting. Care was taken to include events and interviewing variables that more accurately reflect the experiences of children in real-world investigations of alleged sexual abuse. Videotaped interviews with preschool children were presented to experts to determine how adept they are at distinguishing between true and false accounts.

Method: All the studies were designed to investigate the susceptibility to suggestion in young preschool children. The difference between studies was the form of that suggestion and the nature of the event to which the children were exposed. All studies measured recall accuracy, false assent rate, and the change in these outcomes over time and/or successive interviews.

Results: Very young preschool children (aged 3 and 4 years) were significantly more vulnerable to suggestions than were older preschool children (aged 5 and 6 years). The number of interviews and the length of the interval over which they were presented resulted in the greatest level of suggestibility.

Conclusions: While some types of events (negative, genital, salient) were more difficult to implant in children's statements, some children appeared to internalize the false suggestions and resisted debriefing. These children's false statements were quite convincing to professionals, who were unable to distinguish between true and false accounts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Child Abuse, Sexual / diagnosis*
  • Child Abuse, Sexual / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Child Abuse, Sexual / psychology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition*
  • Expert Testimony / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Socialization*
  • Suggestion*
  • Truth Disclosure