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Teary testimony from children is more credible

Wednesday, May 14, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

girl cryingHere’s one that just makes intuitive sense. When children are testifying in court, teary testimony is thought to be more credible than stoic and controlled testimony from child victims of non-sexual crimes. At least so say aspiring lawyers in Sweden.

Researchers developed four (5 minute long) videos using two child actors (one boy and one girl) both 8 years old. In each video, the children gave the exact same testimony but in one video the testimony was teary and in the other video, the testimony was emotionally neutral. The evaluators (the experimental subjects) were law students.

In the emotional video, the child hesitated and avoided eye contact with the interviewer when disclosing “delicate details” about the event. Additionally, the emotional child curled up in the chair, shivered and sobbed several times during the interview.

In contrast, the neutral child was composed, maintained eye contact, and showed little sign of emotion.

The children told the story of arriving early to school to return a book to the school library. On the playground, s/he ran into a group of 11 year olds who grabbed the child’s hat and began to toss it back and forth to each other rather than giving the hat back. Since the child was younger and shorter, s/he was unable to retrieve the hat. When the child requested the return of the hat, the “ringleader” of the group laughed and ran to the bathroom and flushed the hat down the toilet. The child reported the incident to the school janitor and the janitor, in turn, reported it to parents and school administrators.

The testimony of the emotional child was seen as more credible and authentic. That is, the law students were more likely to believe (in two separate experiments) the child had actually experienced the harassment. Further, those student participants observing the emotional testimony reported the child’s demeanor to be a better match with their expectations of what a child experiencing this sort of incident would look like.

The researchers say this assessment of emotional testimony as more credible is consistent with research done on adult crime victims. When the victim cries, they fulfill our expectations of the “emotional victim” and we feel more sympathy and believe their story more (i.e., we think they are more credible). Despite having a girl and a boy actor in the videos, there is no report on differences, if any, in participant reactions by victim gender. (Perhaps that is a follow-up article.)

This has obvious implications for litigation advocacy as not all victims react emotionally or tearfully and, it is natural for us to want to protect children who have been harmed. Stoicism is not rewarded by observers if the alternative is credible distress. The researchers make several recommendations to avoid this tendency to assume more witness credibility when the victim is emotional/tearful.

Warn the observers (i.e., the jurors) that not everyone responds emotionally and so the presence or absence of emotion is not an accurate indicator of credibility.

Consider presenting the emotional testimony on video rather than in person. Some research has shown videotaped testimony is perceived less emotionally than the same testimony presented live. (This is often done with child witnesses anyway as a means to protect them from the trauma of live testimony in the courtroom.)

Educate observers (i.e., the jurors) on the large body of research showing “credibility assessments tend to be more accurate when based on verbal content instead of demeanor”. Tell them you will send a transcript of the child’s testimony to the deliberation room so they can review the content without the emotional factor of the non-verbal presentation. The researchers refer to the criteria outlined in 2010 by the Swedish Supreme Court for assessing credibility (although these guidelines were not supported in research done by one of them).

Landström, S., Ask, K., Sommar, C., & Willén, R. (2013). Children’s testimony and the emotional victim effect Legal and Criminological Psychology DOI: 10.1111/lcrp.12036


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