Pozzulo, J D, Dempsey, J, Bruer, K and Sheahan, C (2011), The Culprit in Target-Absent Lineups:
Understanding Young Children’s False Positive Responding. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 27(1): 55–62

Psychology Being Investigated

The study delves into two key aspects of psychology – eyewitness identification and the influence of social versus cognitive factors on decision-making, especially in young children.

Eyewitness Identification

This is a critical area in forensic psychology, particularly regarding the reliability and accuracy of eyewitness testimony in legal contexts. Eyewitness identification typically involves recognizing a suspect from a lineup. However, this process can be complex, as it depends on various factors like memory, perception, and psychological stress.

Social versus Cognitive Influences

Cognitive Factors – These refer to the mental processes involved in memory and recognition. In the context of eyewitness identification, cognitive factors include a person’s ability to accurately recall and recognize faces or details from a memory of the event.

Social Factors – These involve the influence of social context and pressures on decision-making. For example, in a lineup, a child might feel compelled to choose even when uncertain, due to perceived expectations from authority figures (like police officers or experimenters) or a desire to be helpful.


Pozzulo’s study is grounded in developmental psychology and cognitive psychology. It addresses the developmental aspects of memory and cognition in children, exploring how these factors influence their ability to accurately recall and identify individuals in lineups. This includes examining age-related differences in memory accuracy and susceptibility to suggestion or leading questions, crucial factors in legal contexts where children may serve as eyewitnesses.

The study also delves into the specifics of eyewitness identification procedures, such as the differences in children’s responses to target-present (where the perpetrator is in the lineup) versus target-absent (where the perpetrator is not present) lineups. This includes exploring the psychological mechanisms underlying these responses, such as the role of social cues, perceived authority expectations, and children’s understanding of the task.

The study builds on existing research on the accuracy and reliability of child eyewitness testimony, comparing it to adults. This comparison is important in understanding at what developmental stage children’s eyewitness abilities begin to resemble those of adults and what factors might influence these abilities.


  1. Determine the Role of Social vs. Cognitive Factors in Lineups – The study sought to assess whether false identifications in target-absent lineups are more influenced by social pressures rather than cognitive abilities. This was tested using a lineup task with low cognitive demands, where a high correct identification rate was expected.
  2. Compare False Positive Rates Between Children and Adults – The study hypothesized that while children and adults might have similar correct identification rates in easy lineups, children would show a higher rate of false positives in target-absent lineups, indicating a greater susceptibility to social influences compared to adults​​.



Children – 59 young children aged 4 to 7 years (mean age 4.98 years), including 21 females and 38 males, were recruited from pre-kindergarten/kindergarten classes from three private schools in Eastern Ontario, Canada.

Adults – 53 adults aged 17 to 30 years (mean age 20.54 years), including 36 females and 17 males, were recruited from the Introductory Psychology Participant Pool at an Eastern Ontario university.


The study used a 2 (age group – young children vs. adults) × 2 (target type – cartoon vs. human) × 2 (lineup type – target-present vs. target-absent) mixed factorial design.


  • Demographics and Cartoon Watching Form – Participants (or parents/guardians for children) provided demographic information and details about their familiarity with the target cartoons used in the study.
  • Human Face Targets – Video clips of a female and a male Caucasian university student performing everyday tasks, with close-ups of their faces.
  • Human Face Foils – Photographs of foils (similar-looking individuals) selected based on appearance similarity to the human targets.
  • Cartoon Targets – Clips of Dora the Explorer and Go Diego Go, focusing on the characters’ faces.
  • Cartoon Foils – Images of cartoon characters similar to the targets.


Lineup Presentation – Each target (human or cartoon) was presented in a lineup using a simultaneous procedure. Lineups were either target-present (including the actual target) or target-absent (excluding the target but including similar foils).

Instructions – Participants were instructed to point to the photo of the person/cartoon from the video if present, or to a designated box if not present.

Administration – Three female experimenters, dressed in professional-casual attire to reduce authority cues, administered the lineups to children.

Data Collection Technique

The study used visual recognition tasks, where participants viewed video clips and subsequently identified characters (human or cartoon) from photo lineups displayed on laptop screens.

Measured and Manipulated Variables

Manipulated Variables – Age of the participants (children vs. adults), type of target (cartoon vs. human), and lineup type (target-present vs. target-absent).

Measured Variables – Correct identifications in target-present lineups and correct rejections in target-absent lineups, to assess the influence of social and cognitive factors on the participants’ decision-making process​​.


Quantitative Findings

  • Correct Identification Rates for Human Faces – For human faces, the average correct identification rate was 0.23 for children and 0.66 for adults.
  • Correct Identification Rates for Cartoon Faces – For cartoon faces, children had an average correct identification rate of 0.99, while adults had a rate of 0.95.
  • Comparison Between Human and Cartoon Faces – Children were significantly more accurate in identifying cartoon faces (0.99) compared to human faces (0.23), with a statistically significant difference (X^2(1, N=116)=66.10, p=.001). Adults also showed higher accuracy with cartoon faces (0.95) compared to human faces (0.66), with a significant difference (X^2(1, N=103)=11.25, p=.001).
  • Children vs. Adults in Identifying Cartoon Characters – Children and adults showed a comparable correct identification rate for cartoon characters (0.99 vs. 0.95, respectively; X^2(1, N=110)=.39, p=.53).
  • Children vs. Adults in Identifying Human Faces – Children had a significantly lower rate of correct identification for human faces compared to adults (0.23 vs. 0.66; X^2(1, N=168)=18.83, p=.001)​​.

Qualitative Findings

  • Free Recall Descriptions – Participants were asked to describe everything they could remember about each video clip. The researchers recorded responses from child participants, while adult participants recorded their own responses. This was used as a filler task between the video exposure and lineup presentation, with approximately 2 minutes between each video exposure and lineup presentation.
  • Procedure Differences Between Children and Adults – The study’s procedure varied slightly for children and adults, with different approaches to introducing the task and obtaining consent. The study ensured comfort and reduced stress for children, using crafts and gentle questioning. Adults were introduced to the study in a more formal laboratory setting, asked to recall details in writing, and given demographic questionnaires after the task completion.

Representation and Interpretation

The quantitative results, particularly the correct identification rates, indicate that children are significantly more accurate in identifying familiar cartoon characters than human faces. In contrast, adults show better identification accuracy overall, with a slightly higher accuracy for cartoons. This suggests that familiarity and the nature of the stimuli (cartoon vs. human) play crucial roles in the accuracy of eyewitness identification, especially for children.

The qualitative aspect of the study, primarily through the free recall descriptions, provided insights into the cognitive processes and attentional aspects of both children and adults during the identification task. This qualitative data complements the quantitative findings, offering a more holistic view of how different age groups process and recall information in eyewitness identification scenarios.


Role of Social vs. Cognitive Factors – The study assessed whether children’s false positive responses in target-absent lineups are more influenced by social factors than cognitive factors. It found that although children could correctly identify familiar targets (cartoon characters) with nearly 100% accuracy, they had a significantly lower rate of correct rejections in target-absent lineups compared to adults. This suggests that social factors, rather than cognitive ability, play a more significant role in children’s false positive responses.

Differences Between Children and Adults – The study highlighted notable differences in how children and adults respond to lineup tasks. Children showed a lower correct rejection rate for both familiar (cartoon characters) and unfamiliar (human faces) targets compared to adults. This indicates that children are more prone to falsely identify someone in target-absent lineups, regardless of the target’s familiarity.

Implications for Eyewitness Identification – The findings of this study have important implications for understanding children’s identification evidence in legal settings. Given the lower correct rejection rates among children, the study suggests that children’s eyewitness testimony, especially in target-absent lineups, might be less reliable due to higher susceptibility to social influences. This points to the need for careful consideration and potentially modified procedures when involving child eyewitnesses in legal contexts​​.


Control of Variables – By calculating mean correct identification rates for human and cartoon faces separately for each child, the study controlled for target-specific peculiarities, which could otherwise skew the results. This methodological precision ensured that the findings were more likely to reflect general patterns rather than anomalies associated with particular targets.

Counterbalancing and Randomization – The positioning of targets/replacements in the lineups was randomized, and the order of video and photoarray presentation was varied. This counterbalancing reduced potential biases and order effects, thus enhancing the internal validity of the study.

Safeguarding Participants’ Comfort and Well-being – The study took several steps to ensure the comfort and well-being of the child participants. For instance, children were introduced to the study in a non-threatening manner, and the researchers engaged them in crafts before starting the experiment to establish a comfortable environment. This approach reduced anxiety and stress, which is crucial when working with young children in a research setting.


Limited Age Range and Demographics of Participants – The study focused on a specific age group of children (4- to 7-years-old), which limits the generalizability of the findings to other age groups. The developmental differences in memory and suggestibility can vary significantly across different age ranges in childhood.

Use of Familiar vs. Unfamiliar Targets – The study compared familiar cartoon characters with unfamiliar human faces. While this design provided insights into the influence of familiarity on identification accuracy, it might have introduced a bias. Children are generally more engaged with and better at recognizing familiar cartoon characters, which could lead to an overestimation of their identification abilities in more realistic scenarios, where targets are likely to be unfamiliar.

Ecological Validity – The procedure involved showing video clips followed by a lineup identification task, which may not fully replicate the complexities and stressors of real-world eyewitness situations. The ecological validity of the study could be questioned, as the controlled environment of a research setting differs significantly from the often chaotic and stressful circumstances in which eyewitness identifications typically occur.