Child witness expressions of certainty are informative

Alice Winsor, Travis Seale-Carlisle, Isabella Killeen, Danielle Hett, Theodore Jores, Madeleine Ingham, Byron Lee, Laura Stevens, Melissa Colloff

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Children are frequently witnesses of crime. In the witness literature and legal systems, children are often deemed to have unreliable memories. Yet, in the basic developmental literature, young children can monitor their memory. To address these contradictory conclusions, we reanalysed the confidence-accuracy relationship in basic and applied research. Confidence provided considerable information about memory accuracy, from at least age 8, but possibly younger. We also conducted an experiment where children in young- (4–6 years), middle- (7–9 years), and late- (10–17 years) childhood (N=2,205) watched a person in a video, and then identified that person from a police lineup. Children provided a confidence rating (an explicit judgement), and used an interactive lineup—in which the lineup faces can be rotated—and we analyzed children’s viewing behavior (an implicit measure of metacognition). A strong confidence-accuracy relationship was observed from age 10, and an emerging relationship from age 7. A constant likelihood ratio signal-detection model can be used to understand these findings. Moreover, in all ages, interactive viewing behavior differed in children who made correct versus incorrect suspect identifications. Our research reconciles the apparent divide between applied and basic research findings and suggests that the fundamental architecture of metacognition that has previously been evidenced in basic list-learning paradigms also underlies performance on complex applied tasks. Contrary to what is believed by legal practitioners, but similar to what has been found in the basic literature, identifications made by children can be reliable when appropriate metacognitive measures are used to estimate accuracy.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Early online date9 Sept 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 9 Sept 2021


  • eyewitness identification
  • development
  • metacognition
  • confidence and accuracy
  • signal-detection


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