In trying to understand how children could make such bizarre and graphic allegations, researchers have described 6 problematic techniques that were discovered when the transcripts of the McMartin interviews were reviewed. These techniques are sometimes referred to as the “McMartin factors”7:
1. Suggestive questions: This potentially corruptive technique consists of introducing new information during the interview when the child has not yet provided that information. For example, the question, “Did he touch you on your privates?” represents a highly leading question if the child had not mentioned any type of inappropriate touching.
2. Asked-and-answered: This technique consists of asking the child a question that he has clearly just answered. The transcript excerpt from the McMartin case illustrates this particular technique:
Interviewer Did your teacher touch you in your private area?
Interviewer No? Are you sure?
Child No, he didn’t.
Interviewer Do you remember him touching you at all down there?
Child Yeah, well, I guess so.
3. Inviting speculation: An investigator using this technique asks the child to guess about something that may have happened. As a tool to elicit allegations, the child is asked to pretend or use his imagination. The interviewer in this situation might make comments such as “Let’s pretend and see what might have happened,” or “Can you try to close your eyes and imagine what he did to you?”
4. Other people: Here the child is told that the interviewer has already received information from someone else regarding the subject to be discussed. The following exchange illustrates this technique:
Interviewer Your mommy told me that Johnny touched you when she left the kitchen.
Child Uh huh.
5. Positive consequences: In this situation, the interviewer provides praise or approval, or communicates to the child that he is being helpful or smart when making an allegation. For example, an interviewer who tells a child that he is “so smart” or “a really good kid” after the child has answered that he was abused is providing a verbal reward for the child’s response. Giving a child a gift (such as a teddy bear or toy) following a disclosure also communicates to the child that he is being rewarded when he accuses others of inappropriate sexual behaviors.
6. Negative consequences: This technique uses responses that are the opposite of positive consequences. The investigator communicates to the child that the answers the child is giving are not ones that are desirable. This suggests to the child that he is not being truthful or that the investigator is disappointed with the child’s responses to questions.
Although these poor interview techniques were observed in the McMartin interview tapes, do such techniques actually elicit false allegations? Current research on this topic provides a clear answer: yes.
In one study, Yuille and colleagues6 examined the effects of using social influence and reinforcement on preschool children’s immediate reports of an event they had witnessed in class. In this study, a male graduate student was introduced to the day-care class as Manny Morales. He wore a large silly hat and after introducing himself, he read from a book, placed a sticker on the back of each child’s hand, handed out a napkin and cupcake to each child, and then said good-bye to the class.
One week later, children were interviewed about their experience with this entertaining visitor. One group of children was assigned to the social incentive group. In this group, statements were made to the children that they could be helpful and show good memory by reporting what Manny had done. Another group was assigned to the suggestive control condition in which suggestive questions alone were used. Researchers found that after a brief use of reinforcement and social influence techniques, nearly 60% of the children alleged that Manny had committed acts that he had not, such as breaking a toy, throwing a crayon, or stealing a pen.
A subsequent study of children aged 5 to 7 years examined whether inappropriate interview techniques could have a lasting effect on childrens’ statements. This study involved a classroom visitor named Paco, who read a story, put on a pair of goofy glasses with a large plastic nose and mustache, handed out treats, then left the room after placing a sticker on each child’s hand.