What is Suggestibility?
Suggestibility refers to how susceptible we are to altering our behavior based on the suggestions of others.
Where this bias occurs
People are considered suggestible if they act or accept suggestions based on the input of others. We range in our suggestibility, with factors causing suggestibility including our self-esteem, age, upbringing, and assertiveness.
Suggestibility can be seen in many instances, especially among children, as they are more likely than adults to accept new information in a non-critical fashion. An example of suggestibility can be noted in the recounting of a fight or argument at a children’s school. Witnesses to the fight may initially think the fight was not serious. After hearing someone describe the conflict using language that framed it as a violent affair, they may alter their recollection and unknowingly distort their memory.
Another example of suggestible behavior seen in our everyday life is contagious yawning. Contagious yawning is the act of multiple people yawning after observing a single person yawn. Yawning is an example of suggestibility because we are influenced by the behavior of others without conscious awareness.
Suggestibility impacts how we recall memories and even how we act.1 Suggestibility can cause us to make bad decisions, as suggestions may alter our memories based on false information. This incorrect information then impacts how we recall memories and make choices when dealing with similar instances.
For example, we may recall a dentist visit as being uncomfortable yet manageable. Suppose another person describes how horrible they imagined our dentist appointment was. Based on this discussion, we may alter how we remembered our experience at the dentist, and then later postpone a necessary appointment because of this warped memory.
Suggestibility can have grander circumstances than just recalling stories poorly. A typical example of the looming effect of suggestibility is seen in witness testimonies. When individuals give their initial statements, their memory of an event can be altered because of the initial interview process. During the interview process, attorneys or police may make suggestions, confusing and distorting the memory of the witness. This phenomenon has been extensively documented and observed and poses a real and threatening issue for legal decision-making.
In instances where memory recollection is critical to decision-making, problematic interview processes can lead to suggestibility, and completely skew final decision making. This is problematic across industries, be it the legal system, policy or management.
Why it happens
Though researchers are still attempting to fully understand what leads to certain people being more suggestible than others, academic research has determined that several characteristics have some influence on our suggestibility.
People who experience intense or strong emotions are more receptive to suggestibility. Additionally, age has been an identifier of how suggestible we are. Research suggests that suggestibility usually decreases as we get older.
Furthermore, psychologists believe that people with lower levels of self-esteem and assertiveness are typically more suggestible. Additionally, researchers have agreed that our personality and the way we are raised impacts our suggestibility levels. Children raised to be more skeptical are usually less suggestible in comparison to their less skeptical peers.
Researchers have also attributed the variability to suggestibility to differences in attentional functioning. Researchers define attentional functioning as our ability to filter irrelevant information and inhibit prepotent responses. Overall, several behavioral and social characteristics influence each individual’s tendency to take cues from others, and change their beliefs based on those suggestions.
Why it is important
Suggestibility can significantly affect and alter how we remember memories and make decisions in the future. Suggestibility impacts everyone, and awareness can help us recognize instances of suggestibility in our lives. Once aware, we can take necessary action to avoid suggestibility in our cognitive processes.
How it all started
Suggestibility has long been hypothesized by many social scientists, industry professionals, and legal practitioners. Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist, is known for her work on human memory malleability. Loftus was the first researcher to publish the highly influential series studying suggestibility in eyewitnesses in the 1970s. After her first series, a large amount of research was conducted on suggestibility to explore its impacts on memory, and decision making. Loftus’s research proved that suggestive interviews led individuals to make profound errors in their eyewitness testimony. Additionally, Loftus’s research highlighted fundamental questions regarding memory reliability in regards to eyewitness testimony, opening the door to further research and investigation into this topic.
The research conducted by Loftus informs judicial systems and judicial courts on best-practices to avoid suggestibility and bring forth fair and just testimonies. Loftus’ work inspired debates and research on the nature of memory, memory performance, and the mechanisms of how we remember and forget.
Example 1 – Legal testimonies
Suggestibility in child witnesses and testimony has been a common focal point in suggestibility research. Children’s witnesses are incredibly susceptible to suggestibility, specifically regarding the interview processes. The drive to avoid suggestibility in the interviewing process has led researchers to identify correct ways to conduct forensic interviews. Researchers hope to find methods that prevent bias and misleading information from leading to false reporting or testimony.
In a study conducted by Hritz, Royer, and peers, the research team explored possible interview techniques to reduce child testimony suggestibility. Previously, researchers demonstrated that children could speak emotionally and seemingly sincerely about events that had previously never occurred, in a similar manner to children reporting actual events.9,10 Additionally, a study by Kassin, Tubb, Hosch, and Memon, conducted in 2001, surveyed 64 different eyewitness experts to assess the question of accuracy in children’s testimony and found that two-thirds of respondents stated that children were typically less accurate than adults in their testimony. This belief among experts that children witnesses are less reliable than adult witnesses compromises the retrieval of accurate information for evidence. These biases lead to different interviewing tactics, which result in children being susceptible to suggestibility.
The researchers urged that prior to interviewing children, interviewers should examine children’s language, theory of mind, and emotional attachment. Only after doing this should interviewers use findings to prepare a line of questioning that tests alternative hypotheses, which may lower instances of suggestibility in children’s testimony.
Example 2 – Descriptive wording
Another study conducted by Lindsay and Johnson assessed the impact of suggestibility; specifically, how suggesting certain words affected participants’ memories. The research study set out to evaluate failures of the process which led to suggestibility in participants.
The study began by showing students a video of a car crash. Once viewing the original video, students were divided into different control groups and asked about the car’s speed. Different groups of students were then asked about the video using different vocabulary. Students in different groups were asked if the cars had “hit,” “smashed,” “collided,” “bumped,” or “contacted” each other.
The research study found that based on the severity of the word given to student groups, participants adjusted their estimation of the car’s speed based on the video they had viewed.11 The terms provided to students and used to describe the footage thus impacted their perception of the memory and altered it, demonstrating a clear instance of verbal suggestibility.
What it is
Suggestibility refers to how susceptible we are to having our memories altered based on others’ suggestions.
Why it happens
Though it is still unclear why we range in suggestibility, the following factors impact our suggestibility: emotion, age, self-esteem and assertiveness levels, personality, upbringing, and attentional functioning.
Example 1 – Suggestibility can impact child testimonies
Suggestibility and its impact on witness testimony are studied extensively, specifically in regards to child witnesses. Children are extremely susceptible to suggestibility due to the nature of forensic interviewing processes. Previously researchers had noted that children could speak emotionally and seemingly sincerely about events that had never occurred. Additionally, a different study found that eyewitness experts believed that children were typically less accurate as adults in their testimony. These biases usually compromise the interview process resulting in children being suggested ideas or details by interviewers. Techniques like examining children’s language, the theory of mind, and emotional attachment before conducting interviews, and then using findings to prepare a line of questioning that tests alternative hypotheses, helped lower instances of suggestibility in children’s testimony.
Example 2 – Descriptive words can change our memory
Researchers Lindsay and Johnson conducted a research study to identify
the impact of suggestibility when suggesting words to determine how it affected participants’ memories. In the study, participants were initially shown a car crash video and divided into different control groups. Different groups of students were then asked about the video using different vocabulary, describing the video in terms of the cars having been “hit,” “smashed,” “collided,” “bumped,” or “contacted.” The study found that students changed their recollection of the video based on the severity of the word they used by the interviewer and adjusted their estimation of the car’s speed.
How to avoid it
We can prevent or decrease suggestibility by developing awareness. Researchers can also limit suggestibility by using source identification tests and post warnings and pre-warnings in research studies.