Pragmatic Failure and Referential Ambiguity When Attorneys Ask Child Witnesses 'Do You Know/Remember' Questions

31 Pages Posted: 6 Dec 2016 Last revised: 3 May 2017

See all articles by Angela Evans

Angela Evans

Brock University Psychology Department

Stacia Stolzenberg

Arizona State University (ASU) - School of Criminology & Criminal Justice

Thomas D. Lyon

University of Southern California Gould School of Law

Date Written: May 2, 2017

Abstract

“Do you know” and “Do you remember” (DYK/R) questions explicitly ask whether one knows or remembers some information while implicitly asking for that information. This study examined how 104 4- to 9-year-old children testifying in child sexual abuse cases responded to DYK/R wh- and yes/no questions. When asked DYK/R questions containing an implicit wh- question requesting information, children often provided unelaborated “Yes” responses. Attorneys’ follow-up questions suggested that children usually misunderstood the pragmatics of the questions. When DYK/R questions contained an implicit yes/no question, unelaborated “Yes” or “No” responses could be responding to the explicit or the implicit questions resulting in referentially ambiguous responses. Children often provided referentially ambiguous responses and attorneys usually failed to disambiguate children’s answers. Although pragmatic failure following DYK/R wh- questions decreased with age, the likelihood of referential ambiguity following DYK/R yes/no questions did not. The results highlight the risks of serious miscommunications caused by pragmatic misunderstanding and referential ambiguity when children testify.

Keywords: child witnesses, pragmatics, referential ambiguity, testimony

Suggested Citation

Evans, Angela and Stolzenberg, Stacia and Lyon, Thomas D., Pragmatic Failure and Referential Ambiguity When Attorneys Ask Child Witnesses 'Do You Know/Remember' Questions (May 2, 2017). 23 Psychology, Public Policy & Law 191-199 (2017); USC CLASS Research Paper No. CLASS16-39; USC Law Legal Studies Paper No. 16-43. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2880937

Angela Evans (Contact Author)

Brock University Psychology Department ( email )

500 Glenridge Avenue
St. Catherines, Ontario L2S 3A1
Canada

Stacia Stolzenberg

Arizona State University (ASU) - School of Criminology & Criminal Justice ( email )

411 N. Central Avenue
Phoenix, AZ Arizona 85004
United States
6024960495 (Phone)

Thomas D. Lyon

University of Southern California Gould School of Law ( email )

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States
213-740-0142 (Phone)
213-740-5502 (Fax)

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