AS Psychology and EWT: Child witnesses influenced by gestures as well as wording

Factors affecting EWT: Age of witness

gestureAQA specification A requires students studying AS Psychology Unit 1 to learn about research into “factors affecting the accuracy of Eye Witness Testimony”, including the age of the witness. This week I came across some research suggesting that it is not just the fragility of a developing memory or the wording used by the interviewer that can have a detrimental impact on the recall of information when witnesses are children, but also the non-verbal gestures used by an interviewer.

Not what you say but how you say it

Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire have conducted a study where adult interviewers gestured in a misleading manner in a way that seemed to suggest that an item that was not present in a video, shown to the child participants, had been. The children were reported to have been “highly susceptible” to the gesture,  recalling incorrectly that a lady in the video had been wearing glasses when she had not been when the question was accompanied by the interviewer gesturing as if they were putting on glasses.

Implications for training of interviewers

This is particularly worrying as when talking to children it can seem quite natural to gesture explicitly to bring what you are saying to life and to engage children preventing wandering attention. This research implies that when interviewing child witnesses this sort of gesturing needs to be avoided and awareness of this influence should become part of interviewer training should this finding be replicated and validated sufficiently.

The study is summarised on the University website (“Interviewers gestures mislead child-witnesses”) and is being presented at the BPS Annual Conference this week (at time of writing).

In the classroom

As the focus of this research is directly relevant to the AQA A spec there are potentially a number of ways to use this in the classroom. Here are a few ideas:

  • Give students an overview of the research and ask them what they would they would be expecting in terms of the method and controls in place in this study in order to take the findings seriously (this could be linked to peer review as a method of validation giving a small taste of A2).
  • You could ask students to imagine that they are going to attend the BPS annual conference and prepare a list of questions for the researchers regarding this piece of research.
  • You could ask students to design their own study to further investigate the impact of gestures on witnesses (this could go beyond children).
  • Ask students to include this research in an exam style question along the lines of “Outline research into factors affecting accuracy of EWT including age of witness (4 marks)”

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