One possible source of the outlandish reports given by children in cases such as the Christchurch Civic Creche affair was described at the 2003 Skeptics’ Conference.

In recent years the western media has become increasingly cluttered with stories of bizarre goings-on with groups of children. Although nearly 15 years of scientific research has shown us that children can come to report a variety of false experiences, until recently we knew very little about how the more implausible and outlandish reports — of naked Japanese men playing guitars, of secret tunnels and hanging cages — might emerge.

This year, Rachel Sutherland, Maryanne Garry and Deryn Strange published the results of a scientific study designed to investigate whether a seemingly innocuous technique might be promoting these bizarre stories. The purpose of our research was to examine the role of imagination in the “Draw and Tell” interview to try and provide an explanation for how children can come to believe that impossible events have happened to them. We wanted to know if children could come to believe that they had participated in an impossible event just by drawing and imagining that they had. We asked children to answer a list of events on a Life Events Inventory (LEI). The list included typical childhood events as well as unlikely but highly imaginable events (the target events) such as, “have you ever flown to the moon on a rocket”. Children only had to say “yes” or “no”. One week later a novel experimenter asked children in the Draw group to draw what it would be like if three of the target events had actually happened to them. One hour after the drawing phase, the original experimenter returned and told the children that their original answers had been lost and asked if they would mind answering the questions in the LEI again.

We found that children in the Draw group were more likely to say that an event had happened. Put another way, the group exposed to the drawing task were much more likely to change their responses from “no” to “yes” when asked a second time whether the events had actually happened to them. In fact, the effect of drawing was not limited to the target events that children drew. Draw children were more likely to change their answers on all events, not just the ones that they spent time drawing.

The results of this experiment show that drawing might promote reports of events that did not occur. If children are given false event information in the context of an interview and then draw that information, that drawing may then make them more likely to claim that the suggested event has happened. In light of this finding, those in both legal and therapeutic settings should maintain vigilance when asking children to take crayons in hand or run the risk that further false memories will be “drawn out.”

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