Suggestibility under pressure: Theory of mind, executive function, and
suggestibility in preschoolers
Aryn C. Karpinski
, Matthew H. Scullin
West Virginia University, United States
University of Texas at El Paso, United States
article info abstract
Received 12 June 2007
Received in revised form 28 April 2009
Accepted 17 May 2009
Available online 28 June 2009
Eighty preschoolers, ages 3 to 5 years old, completed a 4-phase study in which they experienced
a live event and received a pressured, suggestive interview about the event a week later.
Children were also administered batteries of theory of mind and executive function tasks, as
well as the Video Suggestibility Scale for Children (VSSC), which assesses children's assents to
misleading questions (Yield), changes in responses when given mild negative feedback (Shift),
and their ﬁnal number of assents after feedback (Yield 2). The results showed that, controlling
for age, children with better executive function were overall less suggestible in the pressured
suggestive interview. On the VSSC, executive function was only related to Yield 2 in younger
children. When interviewers provided speciﬁc negative feedback to older children about their
responses, children with more developed theory of mind were less suggestible. Children with
executive function deﬁcits may be especially vulnerable to interviewer pressure.
© 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Theory of mind
Over the past 30 years, researchers have investigated with renewed interest a child's ability to provide accurate testimony for
witnessed events in a suggestive interview situation (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). In the last decade, children's suggestibility research has
focused more on individual differences that moderate susceptibility to suggestion (reviewed in Bruck & Melnyk, 2004). Instead of
examining the circumstances in which suggestibility occurs and age differences in suggestibility, individual difference research has
been concentrating on the cognitive and psychosocial factors that underlie suggestibility. Proponents of this approach posit that
higher levels of suggestibility reﬂect young children's cognitive weaknesses (e.g., deﬁcits in memory, theory of mind, intelligence,
or language) or personality factors (e.g., shyness, suggestibility as a trait-like characteristic). The major objective of the current
study was to utilize the individual difference approach to examine the extent to which theory of mind and executive function
explain differences in children's tendencies to assent to misleading questions. In addition to this individual difference approach, we
focused on whether these relations change across the 3- to 5-year-old age range. We also examined whether these relations are
affected by a social component of suggestibility—the degree to which interviewers exert social pressure on children to change their
Theory of mind refers to the ability to understand that people have mental states that affect their actions, and in some instances
that people can have false beliefs (Astington, 1993; Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). In addition, theory of mind refers to the
understanding that one's own beliefs may not be consistent with reality. Theory of mind may be relevant among young children in
interrogative situations because it may give children insights into their own and the interviewer's false or inaccurate beliefs.
Executive function, or higher-level action control, is a multi-faceted construct that includes children's problem solving/planning
ability, inhibition of prepotent responses, coordination and control of action sequences, working memory, and shifting focus when
task demands change (reviewed in Garon, Bryson, & Smith, 2008). Executive function may play a role in helping children deal with
Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 30 (2009) 749–763
⁎ Corresponding author. Department of Psychology, 500 W. University Ave., University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, TX, 79968, United States. Tel.: +1 915 747 5313;
fax: +1 915 747 6553.
E-mail address: email@example.com (M.H. Scullin).
0193-3973/$ – see front matter © 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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