Color coding, numbering, and “Wh”- questions in child interviews: What gets the best results?

Color coding, numbering, and “Wh”- questions in child interviews: What gets the best results?

Researchers and interviewers should be attentive to the tradeoffs in encouraging children to answer color/number questions, and the difficulties in improving children’s performance by encouraging don’t know responses. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior and Practice. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2021, Vol. 45, No. 2, 124-137

Don’t Know Responding in Young Maltreated Children: The Effects of Wh- Questions Type and Enhanced Interview Instructions


Kelly McWilliams, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
Shanna Williams, McGill University
Stacia N. Stolzenberg, Arizona State University
Angela D. Evans, University
Thomas D. Lyon, University of Southern California


Objective: Two studies examined 4–7-year-old maltreated children’s “I don’t know” (IDK) responses to wh- questions after receiving various interview instructions. Hypotheses: We predicted (H1) children would be less inclined to give IDK responses and more inclined to guess to color/number questions compared to other wh- questions; (H2) IDK instructions would increase children’s IDK responding compared to no instructions, with an increase in accuracy; but (H3) instructions would be less effective in reducing guessing for color/number questions than other wh- questions. In Study 1, we predicted that (H4) verbalizing a commitment to answer IDK would be particularly effective. In Study 2, we predicted that (H5) IDK instructions would reduce children’s accurate corrective responses, but that (H6) the neg- ative effect of IDK instructions on corrective responses would be alleviated by a “correct the inter- viewer” instruction. Method: Across 2 studies, 301 four- to seven-year-old (M = 5.60, SD = 1.09) maltreated children viewed videos and answered wh- questions about true and false details. Both studies included a within-subjects manipulation of wh- types (color/number & wh- detail) and a between-sub- jects manipulation of instructions (Study 1: IDK practice, IDK practice/verbalize, control; Study 2: IDK, correct me, IDK correct me, control). Results: In both studies, (a) color/number questions eli- cited more guessing than wh- detail questions, (b) IDK instructions decreased inaccurate responses, but they also decreased accurate responses, including accurate corrective responses, and (c) IDK instructions had a larger effect on wh- detail questions, reducing accurate corrective responses. In Study 1, verbal- ization failed to enhance the effect of instructions. In Study 2, the negative effect of IDK instructions on accurate corrective responses was not alleviated by instructions to correct the interviewer. Conclusions: Among young maltreated children, color/number questions elicit higher rates of guessing than other wh- questions. IDK instructions reduced inaccurate responses, but also reduced accurate responses.


child maltreatment, forensic interviewing, ground rules, child memory, interview instructions

Summary of the Research

“Young children’s excessive tendency to guess when asked questions, and their concomitant failure to give ‘I don’t know’ (IDK) responses, is a well-documented phenomenon. Guessing is an obvious problem for forensic interviews, because it is likely to increase inaccuracies and inconsistencies in children’s reports. In response, practice guidelines commonly recommend that forensic interviewers questioning children about abuse include an instruction on the appropriateness of answering IDK. The factors that influence young children’s tendency to guess, including question-type and the nature of instructions, are of obvious applied importance, and also provide insight into children’s cognitive and social development. In two studies, we examined 4- to 7-year-old maltreated children’s tendency to answer IDK varying the types of wh questions asked and the types of IDK instructions provided” (p. 125).

“We examined young maltreated children’s tendency to give IDK responses to different types of wh- questions. In both studies there was evidence that children guessed more often in response to color/number questions than in response to wh- detail questions, though this manifested itself in different ways. The effects were clearest with respect to questions about false details, because attempts to answer such questions necessarily constituted guess- ing. In Study 1, we found that color/number questions about false details led to increased error. Children were less likely to give true corrective responses in which they denied that the details appeared in the videos. In Study 2, we matched color/number and wh- detail questions for content and found that in response to questions about false details, children were less likely to respond IDK to color/ number questions than wh- detail questions. In the absence of IDK instructions, children provided more inaccurate responses to color/ number questions than to wh- detail questions, likely driven by fewer IDK answers” (p. 134).

“We also tested whether various types of interview instructions affect children’s tendency to give IDK answers and improve accuracy. The studies found few positive effects. In both studies, IDK instructions, either alone in Study 1, or combined with correct the interview instructions in Study 2, reduced children’s tendency to provide corrective responses to questions about false details. That is, the instructions led children to refrain from correcting the inter- viewer’s inaccurate presuppositions. With respect to questions about true details, we found mixed effects. Study 1 found a non- significant decrease in errors with no decrease in accurate responses. With a larger sample, Study 2 found a significant decrease in errors but with a corresponding decrease in accurate responses. The effect sizes for the positive and negative effects were comparable, suggesting that children’s increased tendency to give IDK responses reflected a general tendency to respond IDK more often when instructed to do so, which thus reduced the number of inaccurate responses but also the number of accurate responses” (p. 134).

“We predicted that instructions would have a larger effect on wh- detail questions than color/number questions. In both studies, this occurred, but not in the way we had anticipated. Rather than improve performance, instructions were more likely to reduce true corrective responses to wh- detail questions than to color/number questions. With respect to specific instruction manipulations, Study 1 found no support for asking children to verbalize their intent to provide IDK answers, and Study 2 found no benefit to combining IDK instructions with instructions to correct the interview” (p. 134).

Translating Research into Practice

“Researchers routinely warn forensic interviewers that recognition (yes–no and forced-choice) questions are risky, in part because children only very infrequently give IDK answers to such questions. These results show that some wh- questions, despite tapping recall memory, share similar risks, and that children are particularly likely to guess when asked questions about color and number. Interviewers should be mindful of these risks and attempt to elicit color and number information through more open-ended questions. When they feel compelled to ask questions about color and number, they should treat children’s responses with caution, and follow-up brief responses with requests for elaboration to assess the likelihood that the child’s response was based on memory rather than a guess” (p. 136).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The results counsel caution with respect to the use of IDK instructions because they may reduce inaccurate responses at the cost of reducing accurate responses, including true corrective responses in which children correct interviewer misconceptions. However, we would hesitate to make strong recommendations regarding interviewers’ use of instructions, given research supporting their use with older and nonmaltreated children. Independently of their effect on children’s responding, instructions enjoy a number of benefits. When used at the beginning of an interview, they allow for a structured introduction to the interview during which the interviewer can do most of the talking, allowing both the inter- viewer and the child to settle in before the interviewer turns to questions designed to elicit longer narrative responses from the child. Children’s answers to instruction practice questions may have diagnostic value; their answers to “do not understand” instructions in forensic interviews predict how they exhibit incomprehension during substantive questioning. When children demonstrate undue eagerness to guess in response to instruction practice questions, this may provide a useful warning to the interviewer (and others who observe the interview) regarding the interviewer’s use of questions with high response availability. Instructions thus serve many purposes, and researchers should consider their rapport-building and diagnostic qualities in addition to further exploring their effects on children’s acknowledgment of ignorance” (p. 136).

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Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a doctoral student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, professional decision making, and cognitive biases.

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