Jun 30 2011

The Truth Fairy

In one of the most famous child abuse cases in recent history, the “Little Rascals” ritual abuse case in Edenton, NC involved 90 children accusing 20 adults of long term ritual sexual and other abuse. Among the adults accused were the mayor and the sheriff. The reports from the children included the following claims:

  • being taken to the back room of a store and sexually abused. There is a very wide opening between the back room and the rest of the store, so that any sexual abuse would have been perpetrated in the full view of customers.
  • being taken on board a space ship and flown into outer space where they were abused.
  • seeing a large fish tank where sharks were trained.
  • being taken on board a ship into the ocean and abused while trained sharks swam around the boat.

As far as I can tell from reports none of the sharks had frikin’ laser beams on their heads. The case has become a classic example of a modern witch hunt – driven by hysteria and incompetent investigation.

The case is also one among many that has raised serious scientific and practical questions about the role of children as eyewitnesses. Eventually all charges were dropped, but the accused adults were put through a long and terrible process, some even involving jail time.

A recent study intends to shed further light on the question of child witnesses – specifically the effect of fantastical belief on the construction of memory. The researchers investigated the effect of belief in the tooth fairy on memories of a recent loss of a baby tooth.

I found the background of the study more interesting than the study itself. The authors give a nice summary of existing research. One key concept is the fact that children can give reports in more than one context, and it may be difficult to tell them apart. Children often slip into what is called pretense, where they make up fantastical stories but they know that they are not real. They are pretending, perhaps because they feel they are expected to, or perhaps just for fun.

In our culture children are often encouraged to engage in pretense, and even in fantastical beliefs – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy being common examples. These beliefs may also be intermingled with religious beliefs – and children likely do not distinguish which fantastical beliefs are pretend and for fun and which are serious and expected to persist into adulthood.

It should not be surprising, then, that under long interrogation children would start to make up stories about space ships and trained sharks – or ritual abuse. We should, in fact, be grateful for those details because they helped put the more serious details of abuse into perspective.

Already it is clear that investigators need to be aware of this phenomenon, and related phenomena that are active even in adults. Our memories are largely constructed, and we will alter memories to fit our beliefs. We will even update our memories as our beliefs change or new information becomes available. We are also suggestible – adding details suggested to us by others, even just by asking leading questions or questions that contain innocuous details.

The current study seeks to add to the vast literature on memory and suggestibility by exploring whether fantastical beliefs lead to false memory construction or just fantasy pretense. The study is rather complicated, but here is a quick overview. Children were separated into six groups based upon two criteria. They were divided into those who believe in the tooth fairy, those who do not, and those who are uncertain. And then each of these groups were divided into those who were encouraged to tell a truthful story about their recent tooth loss, and those who were encouraged to tell a “fun” story about their tooth loss. They were made to understand that “fun” means the inclusion of dramatic and fantastical elements.

The basic pattern of the results is that believers told stories, whether encouraged to be truthful or fun, that contained many elaborate details, including those about the tooth fairy. Those who did not believe contained few such details. While those who were uncertain contained many fantastical details when encourage to be “fun” and few when encouraged to be truthful.

The study supports the conclusion that when interviewing children care must be taken to be neutral, and to not ask leading questions or to encourage the children to engage in pretense. This is not surprising or new.

The authors also conclude that the pattern of results suggests that the believer children could not distinguish their made-up fantasies from true memories. This is plausible, and I understand the reasoning the authors use to conclude that the children were constructing false memories in line with their fantasy beliefs about the tooth fairy. I am not convinced that this conclusion is firm, however. It seems possible that the children are simply more persistent in their pretense, or are knowingly making up details to support their beliefs. I think there is a very fuzzy line between really believing something and just going along because it is in line with one’s beliefs and desires.

The study was not designed to address this issue – but we also don’t know where the arrow of cause and effect is. Many skeptical parents want to know if they are intellectually harming their children by encouraging belief in things like the tooth fairy. The question is – did belief in the tooth fairy encourage the children in the believer group to make up fantastical details, or did a pre-existing proneness for fantasy lead these children to still believe in the tooth fairy?

In the current study, there were no major differences among the groups in terms of their parent’s treatment of the tooth fairy myth. So believer children and non-believer children were all equally subjected to encouragement and even deception on the part of their parents into believing in the tooth fairy. So then why were believer children believers and non-believer children non-believers? There may be variables not measured by the study, or it may be the personality type of the children.

To separate these various possibilities we would need to do a study where children are randomized to either be encouraged or discouraged to believe in the tooth fairy, and then run a similar experiment on them as above. I doubt such a study will ever be done, however.  At least, however, a retrospective study can be done controlling for that variable – differences in parental behavior toward common fantastical beliefs like the tooth fairy.

Regardless of these open questions, the lessons from this and similar research are clear. Memories are not reliable. They can be fabricated, altered, and contaminated. Therefore, special care must be taken by investigators and therapists not to create or contaminate memories. This is true of adults, but especially true of children who are more prone to fantasy and less grounded in reality.

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