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Spring 2001

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Confusion and clarity in children’s memories

     Of course young children can’t give trustworthy eyewitness testimony. Or can they?

Psychologist Mary Ann Foley is finding that children’s memory confusions are often minimal, and may even aid learning.

     Well into the 1950s and ’60s developmental psychologists mostly agreed that children could not reliably distinguish ideas vs. actions, waking vs. dreaming, even self vs. other. And the natural corollary was that children’s memories were fuzzy and often confused. But nobody had done much actual testing of that theory.

     Enter Skidmore professor of psychology Mary Ann Foley and a few collaborators, including several of her students. In her Moseley Faculty Research Lecture in February, she described her twenty years’ worth of experiments testing the memory performance of a wide range of young children.

     Foley said she long ago noticed that children often have rich fantasy lives and sometimes have trouble reporting clearly about past events, but she also knew that they sometimes have rich, and accurate, memories. Describing her research as “a fascinating journey” into the “interior lives” and developing intellects of children, Foley recounted how she and her students conducted a series of carefully controlled experiments in which a child performs, or watches another person perform, or imagines performing some simple actions or utterances, then the child is engaged in a different activity as a distraction for a few minutes, and then the child is asked to recall if this or that particular action was performed and by whom.

     When she charted the number of memory errors made by six-year-olds, nine-year-olds, and college-age adults, the three bar graphs were very similar, although in some situations the youngest group showed a bit more confusion between imagining doing something and actually doing it.

     Foley also described her research into children’s memories of who did what in collaborative activities. A key theory about collaborative exchanges is that they involve mentally blending one’s own and one’s partner’s actions, and that this may enhance learning. Foley set up a range of experiments pairing a young child with an adult in a collage-building project, after which the children were quizzed about which partner had placed each piece into the collage. The results confirmed that younger children make more “I did it” errors—that is, saying they placed a piece that was in fact placed by their partner—than older children or adults.

     Recently, Foley said, she’s begun testing whether those “I did it” errors are truly linked to learning (as measured by improved performance when the child repeats the project alone after doing it with a partner). So far her results suggest that the more “I did it” errors, the better the learning. As Foley concluded, in these contexts young childrens’ “confusion” between self and other is not a weakness but an asset that directly aids learning.

     Foley’s work has been published in American and British journals on cognitive and developmental psychology. She earned her Ph.D. from SUNY–Stony Brook and joined Skidmore in 1984. Selection as a Moseley Lecturer is the highest honor conferred on a Skidmore faculty member by his or her colleagues. —SR


© 2001 Skidmore College