Monthly Archives: June 2014

Interviewing children without inducing the answers

When we interview children for research purposes we usually face two typical dangers:

–          Suggestibility: sometimes researchers use biased questions that contaminate children’s beliefs or memories. Sometimes children just want to give interviewers the reply they feel is expected or “socially desirable”. It’s easy to induce a given response in a 4- or 5-year-old, and if this happens… then research results are worthless.

–          Unreliable memories: Not only are young children very suggestible, they are also not reliable when recalling events that just took place. Thus, if we show them a video clip and then ask them some questions about it, it’s important that we make sure that children understood what they saw and can retain the events in their memory.


To sum up: it is essential, when we are designing our research interviews, to avoid any tricky questions or stimuli that might interfere with children’s spontaneous thinking (the latter being what we are interested in). I’ve just read three papers that supply interesting and relevant findings we should keep in mind when designing appropriate research interviews with young children.

1) Roebers & Schneider (2005) found that the better the child’s language abilities the less suggestible the child is. Language development seems to be key (especially language fluency and comprehension) rather than other general domain variables such as executive function or working memory. Investigative interviews are language dependent; language abilities play a major role for explaining differences in suggestibility. This finding, however, comes with an interesting caveat: it is also easier to purposely disrupt children’s memories when they have good language skills. The reason for this is that children with better language skills process (false) verbal information provided by the researchers more efficiently, and later they have trouble distinguishing between original and suggested information. Individuals with better language skills encode, store, and thus remember the contents of the misleading questions better than do individuals with poorer language skills. Language can work either way.

2) Peterson, Dowden, & Tobin (1999) investigated the influence of question format on 3 to 5 year old children. They found that when researchers frame their questions with a yes/no format (e.g., “did the woman take the man’s hat?”) many preschoolers tend to reply “yes”. This is so even in cases when they don’t know the answer or when they have been presented information that requires a “no” answer. By way of contrast, when children are asked the equivalent wh- question (e.g., “what did the woman take?”) children give more accurate answers and the percentage of children who answer “I don’t know” increases. The authors conclude that there are dangers inherent in yes-no questions: answers may be influenced by response biases or other factors besides how veridical the underlying proposition is. Children seldom say “I don’t know” when they are uncertain or do not know the correct answer. Specific wh- questions seem to be less problematic.

3) Mellor & Moore (2014) investigated elementary school children’s ability to use Likert scales during research interviews. In my opinion, their work has several important methodological flaws. Mainly, the questions are too complicated and children’s failures to use the scales adequately reflects, in my opinion, more the inherent difficulty of the problems posed to children rather than the (un-)reliability of Likert scales. There are a few interesting comments in the paper, anyhow: a) children tend to respond to Likert scales with a left-bias (that is, they seem to pick the first item in the scale more often than the rest); b)  5-point scales yield similar results to 3-point scales (they don’t seem more difficult to understand for elementary school children); c) word-scales (eg: very good-kind of good-more or less-kind of bad-very bad) produce more reliable results than number scales (5-4-3-2-1).

Altogether, three interesting and relevant papers. I’ll keep these findings in mind when designing my own research interview.

Mellor, D., & Moore, K. A. (2014). The use of likert scales with children. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 39(3), 369–379.

Peterson, C., Dowden, C., & Tobin, J. (1999). Interviewing preschoolers: Comparisons of yes/no and wh- questions. Law and Human Behavior, 23(5), 539–555.

Roebers, C. M., & Schneider, W. (2005). Individual differences in young children’s suggestibility: Relations to event memory, language abilities, working memory, and executive functioning. Cognitive Development, 20(3), 427–447.


On Bloom’s “The Moral Life of Babies”

Very nice piece by Harold Bloom in the popular press (NYTimes), where he summarizes recent cognitivist-nativist research on morality. He claims, for instance that:

“A growing body of evidence (…) suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.”

Throughout the article he tries to present a moderate position that recognizes cultural variation in moral codes and the necessity of social experience for moral development, but claims that there is an innate core of morality, a cognitive starting point shared by all humanity. This innate aspect constitutes a basic moral sense (in a sense similar to which Stan Dehaene talks about the number sense). So, for instance, he acknowledges the relevance of the convincing studies by Joseph Henrich (this one, among others) yet asserts that those cultural codes are built upon the firm base of our innate capacity for feeling empathy, compassion, and for distinguishing aggressive (“evil”) agents from cooperative ones.

Thus, when commenting on Tomasello’s research that seems to imply an innate capacity for cooperation, he argues:

“Is any of the above behavior recognizable as moral conduct? Not obviously so. Moral ideas seem to involve much more than mere compassion. Morality, for instance, is closely related to notions of praise and blame: we want to reward what we see as good and punish what we see as bad. Morality is also closely connected to the ideal of impartiality — if it’s immoral for you to do something to me, then, all else being equal, it is immoral for me to do the same thing to you. In addition, moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. (Even a 4-year-old knows not only that unprovoked hitting is wrong but also that it would continue to be wrong even if a teacher said that it was O.K.) And we tend to associate morality with the possibility of free and rational choice; people choose to do good or evil. To hold someone responsible for an act means that we believe that he could have chosen to act otherwise.”

To present morality as a list of features, however, does not help us understand what is distinctive about morality in opposition to innate cognitions: its normative nature. So, when Bloom asserts that “the morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with” I couldn’t agree more (and I am happy to notice that a nativist like Bloom has the intellectual courage to make this point); but his very theoretical framework doesn’t help him to clarify in exactly what way cultural morality is different from a biological tendency to process information in a certain way.

“The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology (…) A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development.” Yes, I agree. But: what is culture? How does exactly culture build the normative, universal, deontic discourse that we call morality on top of our innate capacities? That is the question.