Youth Services Law

Experts May Not Be Objective

A recent project led me to an interesting study in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology looking at what factors influence the opinions of clinicians about whether child sexual abuse occurred in a given case.  It should come as no surprise that the study found that even expert clinicians are human, with many unexamined biases.

What I did find disconcerting was the study's conclusion that the clinicians noticed leading questions, but not other suggestive techniques.  The study included interviews that, in addition to leading questions,  used (a) inducing stereotypes ("he is bad"), (b) statements that assume abuse ("don't be afraid to tell"); and (c) praise or criticism for certain disclosures from the child.  Although experienced clinicians were more likely to note the leading questions, few of them noticed the other three suggestive techniques.

As the study's authors noted, this finding "is surprising as there is ample evidence that a number of suggestive interviewing techniques apart from leading questions may affect children's testimony in a negative way.  This is an alarming finding because if the clinicians do not recognize such influences as harmful, it would not be possible for them to take steps to avoid such influences when interviewing children themselves."  

The authors recommended more training about suggestive techniques and pre-existing beliefs, as well as (of course) more studies on the subject.

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