In some kinds of memory tasks younger children are better than older children – they make less mistakes. Does this also happen when children talk about real life experiences? The MARCIE project is going to find out.
Summary of Results
Memory: Age related changes in errors
During 2014 – 2017 we ran two studies for The MARCIE Project. Here is a summary of what we found.
The main goal of our research was to see whether children would make memory errors when they were talking about an experience that actually happened to them, in the same way that they do when remembering other kinds of information, like groups of words. In studies where adults and children are asked to remember lists of words that all relate to a theme, they often falsely remember hearing a word that was not presented but is strongly related to that theme. For example, if asked to remember words like pillow, bed, pyjamas, yawn, tired, dream, nap, then people often include the word ‘sleep’ when they recall the list, even though that word was not on it. The chances of making this kind of memory error (researchers describe it as a “false memory” because people report that they remember hearing the word even though they didn’t) increases with age – adults do it more than children, older children do it more than younger children. This is interesting because for lots of other types of memory, things get better, not worse with age.
Some researchers have used this false memory research in courtrooms to make the point that we should not necessarily believe an older person’s memory over a younger person’s, because the younger person may be less likely to develop false memories. We wondered if things would work the same way when children were remembering a real experience rather than word lists. This is important to know, because when children give testimony in court it is about real experiences (e.g., something they have seen, or that happened to them).
So, we created an event that was like the word lists used in the false memory studies. We had a research nurse do a health check with your child, with lots of things that usually happen during a visit to the doctor (to create the theme) and also some unusual things (to make sure they were remembering our check-up and not a typical visit to the doctor). We also left out a common part of a check-up – children did not get their heart and lungs checked with a stethoscope. We interviewed them two days later (in Study 1) or 3 months later (in Study 2) to see what they would remember about the health check, whether they would falsely remember having their heart and lungs checked, by themselves, or when we asked them directly about it. We had children between 5 and 12 years take part so we could see how things changed across childhood. We also did the word list memory task, so that we could compare if children were similar for both.
What we found.
We found completely opposite patterns on the two tasks! On the word list task, just like in other studies, children had more false memories (for words that were not presented), as they got older, both when they recalled the words themselves, and when they were asked if the word was present or not. False memories were quite common (although less common than overseas studies). When children remembered the health check, they rarely made false reports of having their heart and lungs checked by themselves, but did so more often when asked if it happened or not. Making these false reports was more likely in Study 2, when children were remembering after a long delay. The most important thing was that we did not see older children making more false memories – there were not strong age effects, but when they happened, it was because younger children were more likely to have false memories. There was no pattern between the two types of memory tasks – how children performed on one was not related to how they performed on the other.
Our findings are important for several reasons. First, they add to the research showing that children can give detailed and accurate descriptions of things they have experienced, when interviewed well. They also show similar effects of question types as previous studies – when children get to recall in their own way they are more accurate then when adults ask them lots of yes/no questions. Second, they show that memory works in different ways for different types of tasks – real life events are remembered better than word lists, and remembering processes for each seem to be different. Third, they show when research uses tasks that are very different from remembering real life experiences we should be careful about applying the findings to contexts that rely on children’s memory (e.g., in the courtroom).
Thank you to everyone who supported this research.
We appreciate your support of our research, which could not happen without schools, parents, caregivers and children being willing to take part. Our findings will be used in presentations and publications for lawyers, judges, police officers, social workers and other researchers to increase our understanding of children’s memory, and to develop the best way to support them in giving detailed and accurate descriptions of their experiences.
Pilot Study: Children’s views about going to the doctor or nurse.
First we asked General Practitioners based in New Zealand about what typically happens during a check-up with a child. Then we asked primary school children what they think usually happens during a check-up.
Overall, we found that children’s descriptions of what usually happens during a check-up matched those of General Practitioners. As you might expect, older children were able to report more about what happens during a check-up than younger children. However, when we asked how often certain things happen at the doctor, children of all ages were in agreement about which things happen often, and which things happen rarely.
Not surprisingly, we found that many children mentioned that they do not like getting injections and many wished that medicine tasted better. Things that children mentioned would make going to the doctor or nurse better included less waiting times, interesting activities to do in the waiting room, and more lollies.
Findings from this study were used to design the check-up that our Research Nurse will be administering to children as part of the MARCIE project. The MARCIE project will be carried out in schools across Wellington in 2016.
The MARCIE project team would like to sincerely thank everyone who participated and assisted us with the pilot study. We really appreciate it!
The MARCIE Project Team
Dr Deirdre Brown.
Deirdre is leading the research. She is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Victoria University. Deirdre has a grant from the Marsden Fund, which supports the MARCIE project.
Mel is our Research Nurse. She previously worked as a registered pediatric nurse for 10 years in Wellington and London. Mel is a mum who also currently works as an artist.
Helen Pierce & Steph McNamee.
Helen and Steph are Research Assistants in Deirdre’s lab. They will be visiting schools to interview the participating children. Helen has a Postgraduate Diploma in Psychology from Massey University. Steph has a Masters degree in Educational Psychology from Victoria University of Wellington.
Frequently Asked Questions for Parents
Can I talk with my child about the research?
Because talking about an event can affect memory, we ask that you do not talk about the check-up with your child until after we have interviewed them. If your child brings up the check-up then please keep it as brief as possible.
Can we change our minds about participating in the research?
Yes. You or your child can withdraw from the study, without giving any reason, up until the final session has ended. Just let us know by contacting one of the Research Assistants.
Before every session, we will check with your child to make sure they are happy to participate. If they do not want to participate, or want to stop at any time, then we will stop straight away.
What happens to the information that is collected?
To ensure confidentiality, your child will be assigned a number, and all of the information that we collect will be identified with that number. Your child’s name will not be stored with any of the information that we collect.
Videos and consent forms will be kept for five years after we finish the study, then destroyed. The results of your child’s check-up, and information that we collect during the memory and thinking skills activities, will be kept indefinitely. All information will be stored electronically and password protected.
Summary results of the project, including quotations, may be published or presented at conferences – we will not identify any child in these presentations.
The information may be used in future research. It may be shared with other competent professionals (e.g. researchers) upon request.
Contact us with any queries about the MARCIE project, either now or in the future.
Phone: (04) 463 5233 ext 8496
You can also contact Dr. Brown directly
Ph: (04) 463 4720
Please direct all media enquiries to Dr. Deirdre Brown
This study has been approved by the School of Psychology Human Ethics Committee under delegated authority of Victoria University of Wellington’s Human Ethics Committee.