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Recollection, Testimony, and Lying in Early ChildhoodReview - Recollection, Testimony, and Lying in Early Childhood
by Clara Stern and William Stern
American Psychological Association, 1909
Review by Marcus C. Tye, Ph.D.
Oct 31st 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 44)

"The problem of testimony by children in legal proceedings is a very complicated one and confronts judges, pedagogues, and parents with many difficult tasks." (p. 139). Prescient words from the 00s, that is, the 1900s. James T. Lamiell's translation provides a fascinating window into the work of the Sterns, early work in a long tradition of memory research in Germany. Lamiell notes that this early work has been forgotten by English speaking psychologists, but it is also the case that the English language psychological literature has all but overlooked the utilization of statement assessment of children's testimony, widespread in modern day Germany, a tradition which dates back to the Sterns.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first part, the Sterns present seven years of notes on their daughter Hilde, illustrating distinctions between recognition and recall. They also delineate three different kinds of false recollection: willful or knowledgeable lies, errors, and fantasies (untruths that are believed to be true). The second section contrasts Hilde and their younger two children, and presents the results of memory experiments performed with their children. Lastly, the Sterns draw conclusions about the implications of their research for children's testimony in legal proceedings. The book is not theoretical, but is primarily empirical, based on the case studies of the Sterns' own children.

Lamiell placed meaning first in translation. For example, he noted that when the Sterns used a nursery rhyme to illustrate alliteration and rhythm, he did not translate the meaning of the story. Instead, he substituted a different English language rhyme, one selected that possessed the aural characteristics of the German rhyme. Although this reviewer does not speak German, and cannot comment on the accuracy of the translation, the text is clear and uses contemporary phrasing that makes the language as accessible as any modern work in psychology.

Of course, a good translation preserves the methodological style of the Sterns, which is considerably less accessible than a modern work. Here is both the strength and the weakness of the book. The first two sections are undoubtedly interesting from the perspective of the historian of psychology, and provide insight into the strengths and limitations of the ideographic approach to research. However, they are clearly of their time, lacking the precision of modern psychological writing. One feels that one learns more about the conclusions of the Sterns' from reading the translator's introduction than from reading the book itself, especially the first two parts, which are mostly hundreds of vignettes, individual moments illustrating the development of memory. It becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees. Given their considerable insights into the functioning of memory, many of which have been supported by subsequent research, it is surprising that the Sterns never realized the possibility of observer bias in what they noted and recorded.

Part three presents the conclusions and recommendations of the Sterns. Many are startlingly relevant to contemporary issues of children's testimonies in legal contexts: "The psychological implications of the experimental results currently available are clear. They show that children are able to accurately observe and sometimes also able to correctly report on things, especially things that interest them. This is particularly true when the recollection is still fresh, and when the child is allowed to give his report freely and spontaneously. But in legal settings, the questioning of witnesses usually does not fall within the sphere of a child's interests, does not allow the child to report spontaneously, and also does not pertain to recollections that are fresh." (p. 140). It could be that the relevance of these conclusions, indeed supported by the latest research, shows how advanced the Sterns were. Or perhaps it demonstrates that we have not come so far in the past hundred years in applying the findings of psychological science to the use of children's testimony.

Marcus Tye Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Psychology at Dowling College, Long Island, NY


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