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Are Children Reliable Witnesses?

How reliable are children as eyewitnesses? It turns out gender and criminal stereotypes influence their ability to recall facts and interpret events.

Professors Lauren R. Shapiro (John Jay College of Criminal Justice) and Elizabeth Brooks (University of Colorado School of Public Health) showed four videos portraying a simulated bike theft to 104 children ages 6 to 8. In the videos, the suspect’s race remained the same, Anglo-American, but children saw either a man or a woman steal a bike. The children were interviewed immediately after watching the videos and again seven weeks later. 

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, found that the children recalled many details accurately — both immediately and later — to prove that a crime had occurred. But they were most likely to characterize the incident as theft when the suspect was male. They also recalled more information when the suspect was male and when he conformed to gender stereotypes — like having short rather than long hair.

Children were also more likely to think that a suspect was male even when the person was actually female. And they were better witnesses if the suspect’s gender matched their own, a tendency that was particularly strong among boys.

The researchers concluded that “cognitive schemas,” or expectations and beliefs about who is likely to be a criminal, impacted children’s recall and interpretation. “The notion that a typical criminal is male is derived through exposure to literature and media, such as internet, movies, and television,” they wrote. 

The findings have implications for law enforcement. If a child thinks “boys are thieves,” then a teenage boy incessantly asking to use a girl’s bike is viewed as “bullying.” If he takes the bike, it’s seen as “stealing,” resulting in formal action by police. But if a teenage girl asks a boy for his bike and then takes it, she’s seen as “begging” and “borrowing.” That conflict is more likely to be resolved without an arrest.

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Effects of cognitive schemas on children's testimony for a simulated juvenile crime
Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 2018

Work By

Lauren R. Shapiro (Associate Professor, Department of Security, Fire, and Emergency Management) | Profile 1