Trusting child witnesses: Are adults implicitly biased to trust children?

Theoretical and Practical Importance

Approximately 100,000 children testify in court each year as witnesses and victims to events such as child maltreatment (Bala et al., 2005). Adults perceive children to give less accurate but more honest testimonies compared to adults (Bala et al., 2005), and compared to younger adults, older adults are more trusting of child witnesses (O’Connor et al., 2019). Notably, older adults show a greater desire to serve on a jury (O’Connor & Evans, 2020) and are better able to accommodate jury duty into their daily routine (Boatright, 2001). Despite this, the field of legal-psychology research has largely neglected to study older adults (see Brank, 2007, for a call to research this topic). These factors, along with the growing population of older adults, make exploring age differences in perceptions of honesty a timely and important topic.

Another limitation is that studies to date have only used explicit measures of attitudes towards children (via self-report questionnaires). However, we are not always consciously aware of our own attitudes (Kang et al., 2012). Implicit biases operate below conscious awareness but can shape our behaviors and contribute to discrimination against other groups (Johnston et al., 2017; Kang et al., 2012).

Implicit biases are commonly measured using the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Nosek et al., 2007). Participants are asked to respond as fast as they can to items from different social categories (e.g., Black and White faces; good and bad words), pressing a key with their right hand for certain items (e.g., Black; good) and their left hand for the other (e.g., White; bad). A faster reaction time to certain pairings is indicative of a stronger implicit bias (i.e., if one is faster to respond to Black-bad pairings than Black-good, it suggests an implicit racial bias against this group). The IAT is available to try here.

While this task has been used to assess implicit biases towards several different social groups, no study has used the IAT to measure implicit biases about children’s honesty. This is a critical gap because in a legal setting, where adults are instructed to be unbiased when evaluating a witness, implicit biases may remain and affect one’s decision-making (Kang et al., 2012). For example, Goff et al. (2014) found that police officers and adults implicitly viewed Black children as less innocent than White children and that the extent of this implicit bias predicted the use of police force against Black children.

Extending this line of research to adults’ implicit honesty biases is particularly important as the extent to which jurors trust a child’s testimony can affect trial outcomes (Bala et al., 2005). Moreover, children are often called to testify in court after experiences of child maltreatment (e.g., physical or sexual abuse or neglect). In these cases, there is often a lack of physical evidence, meaning that the child’s testimony of the event is a crucial component to understanding what occurred (Hershkowitz et al., 2007). Extending this line of research to implicit biases will shed new light on potential, unconscious, biases that may make an impact in the courtroom.

Research Methodology

Implicit Association Test (IAT)
We have adapted the IAT (described above) to reliably assess adults’ honesty biases. This has involved a series of pilot studies to test reaction times to a novel set of faces (i.e., children and young adults) and words (e.g., honest and dishonest). The IAT is completed online through the Inquisit/Millisecond software that is compatible with Prolific.

Explicit Measure
Participants will complete a self-report questionnaire on their general attitudes towards children and adults (e.g., “how warmly do you feel towards children?), as well as their specific perceptions of child and adult honesty (e.g., “how honest are child witnesses?”).

Cognitive Measures
As standard in aging research, we will administer two general cognitive tasks to assess vocabulary and processing speed.

Demographic Information
Participants will provide their age, sex, education, and experience with children.

Sample Size

200 younger adults (18-30 years of age) and 200 older adults (over 60 years of age) on Prolific will participate in this study. This sample size was determined by a power analysis (N = 390 for a small effect, alpha = .05, power = .80).

Study Costs
£1072.40) = Inquisit Software

£1002.66 = Participant Payment
• £1.88 per participant (200 younger adults x £1.88 + 33% service charge = £501.33; 200 older adults x £1.88 + 33% service charge = £501.33)

Total = £2075.06

Preregistration & Open Data

This study is preregistered on As Predicted and can be viewed here. All measures will be provided as online supplemental material when the study is published.

References

Bala, N., Ramakrishnan, K., Lindsay, R., & Lee, K. (2005). Judicial assessment of the credibility of child witnesses. Alberta Law Review, 42, 995-1017.

Brank, E. M. (2007). Elder research: Filling an important gap in psychology and law. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 25, 701–716. doi:10.1002/bsl.780

Boatright, R. G. (2001). Generational and age-based differences in attitudes towards jury service. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 19, 285-304. doi:10.1002/bsl.440.

Goff, P. A., Jackson, M. C., Di Leone, B. A. L., Culotta, C. M., & DiTomasso, N. A. (2014). The essence of innocence: Consequences of dehumanizing Black children. Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, 106, 526-545. doi: 10.1037/a0035663

Kang, J., Bennett, M., Carbado, D., Casey, P., Dasgupta, N., Faigman, D., Godsil, R., … Mnookin, J. (2012). Implicit bias in the courtroom. UCLA Law Review, 59, 1124-1186.

Nosek, B. A., Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (2007). The implicit association test at age 7: A methodological and conceptual review. In J. A. Bargh (Ed.), Social psychology and the unconscious: The automaticity of higher mental processes (pp. 265–292). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

O’Connor, A. M., Lyon, T. D., & Evans, A. D. (2019). Younger and older adults’ lie-detection and credibility judgments of children’s coached reports. Psychology, Crime & Law, 25, 925-944. doi:10.1080/1068316X.2019.1597092

O’Connor, A. M., & Evans, A. D. (2020). Perceptions of older adult jurors: The influence of aging stereotypes and jury laws. Psychology, Crime & Law, 26, 648-666. doi:10.1080/1068316X.2019.1708358