The initial goal of this research was to explore the risks and benefits of using HFDs to assist young children’s recall of touching. Two studies were designed to examine whether adding HFDs to verbal interviews would increase accuracy (benefits) or increase errors (risks). Of related concern was the optimal sequence of presenting HFDs in interviews so as to obtain the most complete and accurate information. Finally, these issues were placed within a developmental framework, with special attention to the performance of the 3- and 4-year-old children who might benefit most from interviews with various nonverbal cues of which HFD is one instance.
Pooling the results from Studies 1 and 2, there were three consistent findings concerning HFDs. First, there were more prompt errors when HFDs were introduced after a verbal interview. This result was not due to a general effect of repeating questions because there was no increase in errors for the verbal interview when it was introduced after the HFD 1 condition. Also, it was not inherent characteristics of the HFDs that produced more errors because questioning with HFD first elicited the same number of errors as questioning with the verbal interview first. Thus, when HFDs were used to give children a second opportunity to recall information, they were associated with risk.
The second consistent finding was that HFDs were not associated with any benefits in terms of eliciting additional accurate details. In fact, in Study 2, the HFD protocol elicited fewer correct responses than the verbal protocol when recognition questions were asked for the first time.
The third finding concerned developmental trends. This was the first study to include a preschool group (3- and 4-year-olds) that generally provides little information in most interviews and thus might stand to gain the most from HFDs; because of problems with symbolic representation, this group might perform particularly poorly in the HFD conditions. Although the 3- and 4-year-old children performed worst on most measures, they showed the same pattern of benefits and risks as the older children in the verbal and HFD conditions. The HFDs did not provide them with any added benefits in recalling complete and accurate information, nor did they reduce the quality of the information.
Study 2 was designed to examine some of the cognitive factors that might be associated HFD performance. Correlational analyses did not provide any evidence that HFDs were particularly helpful for children with poor vocabulary skills or with poor visual spatial skills. Rather, across all ages, children with good vocabulary skills excelled in their performance in both HFD and verbal conditions.
Finally, it should be noted that in the present studies, most of the questioning was carried out in nonsuggestive neutral situations—ones in which there would be minimal error rates. There was one exception in Study 1 where there was a very mild suggestion; children were told to answer recognition questions again because some of their previous answers might have been wrong. Here, there were repeated questions in the same condition for HFDs (HFD 2 vs. HFD 3) and for no-HFDS (verbal 2 vs. verbal 3). Children provided fewer accurate responses to target recognition items equally for both HFD and verbal versions. Although the suggestive manipulation worked as in previous studies (e.g., Cassel et al., 1996
; Poole & White, 1991
), there was no added risk for one condition over another. The results of the study may have underestimated these repeated effects because performance was so poor in all comparison conditions. Because of these floor effects, there is a need for additional research on the risks and benefits of repeating HFD questions.
The results of the studies presented in this article aid in the interpretation of previous studies and in doing so provide important new data on the feasibility of using HFDs. First, they provide an alternative interpretation of Aldridge et al. (2004)
. To review, in that study children who had disclosed sexual abuse during a full verbal protocol, which included open-ended and specific follow-up questions, were then asked specific information about touching with HFDs. Aldridge et al. found that HFDs were associated with increased information; however, the accuracy of this additional information is unknown because it could not be verified. In the present studies, where the verbal 1st/HFD 2nd condition best parallels the procedures of Aldridge et al.1
and where the accuracy of the information could be verified, HFDs elicited increased information after a full verbal protocol but this information was inaccurate (see Brown et al., 2007
, for similar results).
Second, the results of the present studies challenge the conclusions of Willcock et al. (2006)
that children’s poor performance on HFDs reflected problems with symbolic representation. Because there was no control condition of questioning without HFDs, it is difficult to determine the degree to which HFDs compromised children’s performance. In the present study when HFDs were used first, as in Willcock et al., they produced the same number of errors as the verbal condition. Furthermore, pilot data for the present studies indicated that even the youngest children (an age group not included in Willcock et al.) had achieved the necessary symbolic representation skills; they had no difficulty using HFDs to show where a sticker had been placed on their own bodies.
Although the risk and benefits of using HFDs were the intended major focus of Study 1, the children’s poor recall at all ages for both interview versions became the more important finding. Because children’s poor recall of touching has also been reported by a number of researchers (Brown et al., 2007
; Pezdek & Roe, 1997
; Quas et al., 2007
; Willcock et al., 2006
), Study 2 was designed to examine some factors that might influence young children’s memories of touching.
To test the hypothesis that the children forgot the touches during the 1-week delay in Study 1, I tested children immediately after the magic show in Study 2. The youngest children (3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds) continued to perform poorly even when there was no delay. The 6- and 7-year-old children performed much better in Study 2, although they still provided few prompt accurate details, and performance on the target recognition items was far from perfect. Thus, forgetting could have accounted for some of the variance in the poor performance of the oldest children in Study 1.
The second hypothesis for children’s poor performance in Study 1 was that there were too many touches to remember. Thus, a reduction in the number of touches should decrease memory load and increase memory. However, when the number of touches was manipulated in Study 2 (with no delay), only the 7-year-old children benefited from the lower memory load. The number of touches did not influence performance of the younger age groups.
The third hypothesis was that the children in Study 1 did not remember the touches because these were not salient and thus not noticed by many of the children. So, in Study 2, there was verbal elaboration and repetition after each touch. The slight rise in performance from Study 1 to Study 2 may have reflected this extra emphasis, although it is difficult to tease apart the effects of delay and salience of touch.
Finally, the follow-up questioning after the completion of the HFD and verbal interviews in Study 2 suggests some hypotheses worthy of future study. Specifically, it seemed that many of the 3-and 4-year-old children were unaware that the touches had taken place, which is consistent with their very poor performance on the prompt and recognition questions. Even with specific prompting about the event in which the touch took place, they denied the specific touch. In contrast, the older children (6- and 7-year-olds) were more likely to remember the touch under prompt conditions, claiming that they had just forgotten to report it. Finally, there were a small but significant number who denied or failed to mention a target touch because that action was not considered touch but was described as a more active verb such as rubbing or scratching. This suggests that young children’s lexical and semantic system for touch is quite narrow.
Some researchers have interpreted children’s poor recall of touching in the context of disclosure of child sexual abuse; specifically, they have concluded that it reflects motivational factors—the children are afraid, they are embarrassed, they do not want to tell about the touching (see discussion of Quas et al., 2007
). Clearly, this cannot be the case for the present two studies, nor for other laboratory studies where the touches were socially sanctioned and innocuous. Rather, the results of the present studies suggest a cognitive basis for failures to report in the laboratory and even perhaps in the real world where children make false denials of sexual behaviors. Specifically, the results suggest that the children did not process or encode the touches not because of embarrassment, guilt, or fear, but because young children are so used to being touched by adults, that the touches are simply not noticed or segmented into identifiable events. In other words, there is so much going on (in this study, the magic show) that unless the touch is significant for the child, it may not get noticed. Second, children may not disclose because they may not have an adequate representation of the neutral word touch
. Thus, using more specific terms such as rub
, and so forth could produce more information.
In fact, it could be children’s generally poor memory for touches that could explain in part the increased errors when questions were repeated with HFDs. If children do not have a memory for touch, then asking them a question for a second time is not going to improve that memory. However, the use of HFDs in concert with repeated questions may prime inaccurate pointing responses when asked, “Show me ….”
These findings offer practitioners some guidelines about the supplementary use of HFDs in interviews with young children (ages 3 through 7 years). The results of the two studies in this article suggest that if HFDs are used to follow up on information already questioned in a full verbal interview, they tend to elicit errors. Therefore, this would indicate that it would be best to use HFDs first in the interview. However, there was some suggestion in one of the analyses (Study 2, recognition questions) that HFDs elicited fewer accurate details than no-HFD interviews when they were presented first. Thus, on the basis of the current data, HFDs did not provide incremental validity as a diagnostic or assessment tool (Wolfner, Faust, & Dawes, 1993
); namely, HFDs did not show an advantage over the verbal conditions (increased accuracy or decreased errors) in either of the two studies or in any of the test conditions. The results, therefore, suggest that it might be best to use only a verbal protocol when interviewing children about touching, even if they are young preschoolers. Perhaps HFDs could be used at the very beginning of interviews only to assess children’s knowledge of body part names while the interviewer is also assessing other cognitive functions. However, it is first necessary to test this protocol to ensure that this specific use of HFDs actually helps interviewers in understanding children’s statements and does not provide any negative effects.
The present data also indicate the importance of taking into account the nature of the allegations that children make or that have been reported. Children may not differentiate and thus not remember appropriate and inappropriate touches even if they have occurred a short while before. Of course, more research is required on children’s recall of these types of touches that occur during sanctioned interactions (toileting, rubbing of buttocks). The concern is that children’s denial of these nonmemorable experiences may provoke interviewers to use suggestive questioning techniques. Although in some cases suggestions might lead to true assents, there is also the risk that they might lead to false assents, especially for children who do not remember the touches or do not understand the semantics of the questions about touching.
Before concluding, it is necessary to emphasize the limitations of the present research. The current studies examined children’s (ages 3 through 7) recall of innocuous nonpainful touches that in some circumstances could have sexual connotations. Different types of paradigms are required to determine how HFDs influence older and younger children’s recall of genital or anal touches that are also often painful.
In summary, young children of the ages tested in this study demonstrated difficulty when asked to recall innocuous events that involved touching another person or being touched by another person. Children’s difficulties in reporting touches may reflect incomplete encoding of the touch and poor semantic representation of the concept touch. HFDs were not designed to overcome these difficulties and, consequently as shown by these and other studies, do not assist children in providing accurate reports about touching.