So far, we have only looked at studies that used positive reinforcement to achieve behavior that is something positive for both the subject and those around him or her. This week, we will look at how positive reinforcement can actually produce and increase behavior that may be harmful and even lead to one’s detriment. In the article by Billings et al. we see a study on how “reinforcement can induce children to falsely implicate themselves in wrongdoing” (Billings et al. 125). Their verbal behavior can be manipulated and shaped such that the accuracy of their statements is greatly reduced. Depending on how an interview is conducted, an interviewer can induce false accusations and confessions of wrongdoings. Additionally, these results are robust such that the children “continue to affirm their accusations even when challenged” later on (Billings et al. 126). First let’s look at how such a phenomenon is achieved. We will then look at why this phenomenon may occur.
Ninety-nine 5 to 9-year-olds are introduced to and are allowed to play with a colorful toy in their elementary school. After a span of three days, the experimenters remove the toy and claim that someone has taken the toy, probably just to play with it. They explain that they believe a student is responsible and that they need the children’s help to find out what has happened to it and who has taken it. Each child is then taken separately to be interviewed and is questioned in a “warm, supportive way” (Billings et al. 128). The experimenters manipulate how the children are interviewed such that the control group of children are asked straightforward suggestive questions while the reinforcement group children are approached with the same suggestive questions but with an addition of reinforcement after every question answered with a “yes.” Reinforcement includes verbal responses such as “Thanks!” “Great!” “You’re being a real help.”
There are five groups of interview questions:
1) Filler Question: these questions are expected to produce a “yes” answer. (“Do you remember the Brain Warp toy?”)
2) Guilty Knowledge Questions: these questions ask for information the child cannot possess unless he or she is present when the toy is taken. (“When the kids took the toy, did the toy make a loud noise?”)
3) Direct Witnessing Questions: these questions ask if the child has directly observed the toy as it is taken. (“Did you see the kids take the toy?”)
4) confession Questions: these questions ask if the child has personally participated in the taking of the toy. (“Did you help another kid take the toy?”)
5) Leading correct Questions: these questions ask the child for information that the child does in fact possess. (“Did the toy have different colors?”)
The Guilty Knowledge, Direct Witnessing, and Confession questions are classified as the misleading questions that are potentially self-incriminating. Results are calculated based on the percentage of times the children answer “yes,” either verbally or nonverbally, to one of these three categories of questions. Billings et al. find that the simple reinforcement tactics can in fact “induce children to make false incriminating admissions against themselves” such that 52% falsely admit to guilty knowledge concerting the theft, 30% falsely admit to witnessing it, and 18% falsely confess to participating to the theft with their corresponding control group counterparts resulting in 36%, 10%, and 6% respectively (Billings et al. 133).
Billings et al. also find that “conversations with teachers afterwards [indicate] that the children generally [enjoy] being questioned, even though from a strictly legal viewpoint, they [implicate] themselves in an apparent theft” (Billings et al. 133). Why then are children willing to admit to being part of or being responsible for something negative which may give rise to punishment? Their sense of enjoyment may stem from the fact that this type of reinforcement causes them to feel like they are doing something praiseworthy and honorable at the immediate time frame. In this experiment, it is important to Billings et al. that everything is conducted such that the children have a positive frame of mind and lack any anxiety. Although they are admitting to something that is condoned, they are more focused on their prevalent actions which are prompting praise. Or it could be that due to their limited experience, the children may be failing to recognize that “by making false claims of guilty knowledge or direct witnessing, they [are] thereby implicating themselves in the theft” (Billings et al. 134). Instead, they think that they are just helping and are not realizing the ramifications of their claims. It could also be that they do understand the consequences and are paying attention to both, but merely outweigh the “negative utility of possible self-incrimination [with] the positive utility of receiving praise and approval from the interviewer” (Billings et al. 135). They lack the ability to forego the immediate positive consequences to avoid the more remote negative consequences.
The reason that this is so important is because Billings et al. mention additional studies of adults and adolescents that find similar results. Positive reinforcement and feedback can “induce adult eyewitnesses to make inaccurate statements or report false memories. Older individuals will sometimes even make false self-accusations in response to social pressure and other influences” (Billings et al. 126-127). Although the type of reinforcement and tactics used must differ slightly due to the age differences, this phenomenon still persists. In regards to our legal systems, the consequences for an individual therefore can heavily depend on the interrogation and interview process and the level of experience each individual has. How much conscious control do we actually have then of our outcomes and present situations? In this study, “gentle tactics [. . .] are able to extract self-incrimination admissions from children and even several full confessions in a matter of a few minutes” (Billings et al. 136). Emphasis must be placed on the gentleness of these techniques and the fast manner in which they work. While being questioned, one may not realize how bad a situation they are getting into since the process may seem so demure and safe due to the positive aspect of the rewards. In addition, one may think that nothing consequential can result from a questioning of only a few minutes. This type of positive reinforcement therefore is an enemy in disguise that is harder to reveal than if being interrogated in a harsh, accusatory manner. The limitation for this study, however, is that the crime is a theft-crime. If the crime is instead something more serious, such as breaking the toy, will the results change?
In closing, it is also important to mention of a case where this phenomenon actually happened. In 1998, a 7-year-old and 8-year-old boy were charged for first-degree murder after admitting to killing an 11-year-old girl. Luckily, evidence proved that they could not have possibly been the killers and the charges were dropped. Investigators believed that the interviewers were responsible for the inaccuracies of the boys’ confessions. The interviewers bought the children a Happy Meal and reminded them that “good boys tell the truth [. . .] held their hands, told them they were friends, and questioned them about the murder” (Billings et al. 126). These things could all be seen as positive reinforcement and could have easily manipulated the boys’ statements.
Billings, F., Taylor, T., Burns, J., Corey, D., Garven, S., & Wood, J. (2006) Can reinforcement induce children to falsely incriminate themselves? American Psychology, 31, 125-139.