Can a prosecutor rely on a child’s memory of an event in basing a case against the defendant?
Researchers at the University are trying to answer this question, which has implications not only for incidents of abuse in the family but for witnessing other crimes, as well.

The question is but one of several research topics being investigated by one of the University’s newest centers, the Max Wertheimer Minerva Center for Cognitive Processes and Human Performance. The Center in early March held its First Advisory Council Meeting, at which research projects to be conducted were outlined and discussed.

The Center is a collaborative endeavor with the Technion and will be supported by a German-government grant of DM 4,000,000 (approx. $2,500,000), given through the Minerva Foundation, that will endow the operation of the facility. The Foundation has also allocated additional funds for the purchase of scientific equipment.

Among those attending the meeting was the Chairman of the Advisory Council, Prof. Wolfgang Prinz of the University of Munich. Prinz, who is also one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich, has the task of reporting back to the Minerva Foundation on the Center’s progress. To an observer, he unofficially professed himself to be “personally impressed by the breadth of experimental and theoretical work” at the Center.

An experimental psychologist whose interest is the area of perception and action, Prinz was visiting Haifa for the second, and Israel for the third time. On his first visit to Haifa, about two years earlier, the idea for the center had emerged in talks he had had with Prof. Asher Koriat of the Department of Psychology, now Head of the new Minerva Center, and Prof. Daniel Gopher of the Technion’s Industrial Engineering and Management Faculty. The three were attending a conference held at a kibbutz not far from the University. He had been familiar with their work both from the professional literature and from international conferences, and with their plans for a center.

Now, after listening to the presentations and hearing in more detail about the type of problems Center members were planning to research, he said that the quality of the work had created in him even more respect for the Center’s researcher staff.

Other Center researchers are Dr. Joel Norman, Dr. Ruth Kimchi, and Dr. Morris Goldsmith, all of the University’s Psychology Department; and Dr. Ido Erev of the Technion.

A three-man team is trying to determine the reliability of children’s memories. Consisting of Koriat, Prof. Wolfgang Schneider (University of Wurzburg), and Dr. Morris Goldsmith, originally of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a newly appointed Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, the team received a three-year grant from the German-Israel Foundation to pursue this important subject, which has bearing on child and family abuse cases.

Goldsmith, who studied for his B.A. at UCLA and went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Haifa, explained that the common belief is that children are less credible witnesses than are adults. Other research, however, has indicated that a child’s memory can be quite accurate at times. He and his partners hope to shed light on this inconsistency by uncovering the mechanisms by which people--including children--regulate the accuracy of their reports from memory.

Their research will employ a theoretical model that Koriat and he devised in previous research on adults’ metamemory processes. Metamemory refers to what a person knows about his or her own memory, and how the person puts that knowledge to use in the process of remembering. Koriat and Goldsmith’s research showed that regardless of how much information people remember, they can enhance the accuracy of their testimony substantially when both allowed and encouraged to screen out those pieces of information that they feel are likely to be incorrect.

Goldsmith listed some of the questions that the three researchers will attempt to answer: Can children screen out incorrect answers in their testimony? Are they more likely to do so with certain questioning techniques than others? Can the accuracy of children’s testimony be improved by teaching them to employ their monitoring and control processes effectively? Does age play a factor in the ability to monitor the accuracy of one’s answers? Do cultural differences exist? (Part of the research will be conducted in Germany to study this last question.)

The children’s metamemory project has already produced at least one practical result. According to Koriat, the German-Israel Foundation has asked permission to use the project proposal for this investigation as a model for new grant seekers.

On the second day of the Advisory Council meeting, Koriat outlined Center projects to be conducted at the University in addition to the work on the credibility of children’s memory reports. The investigations--involving perceptual organization, structure during reading, and explicit/implicit modes of perceiving--will be conducted in collaboration with German researchers.

Koriat also stressed the Center’s intention to cultivate the exchange of graduate students, post-docs, and researchers between Israel and Germany and to hold multinational symposiums and workshops. He also expressed a hope that the new Center will serve as a vehicle for strengthening ties between the University and the Technion, not only through the planned research projects, but also in the training of graduate students in the areas of cognition and human performance.

The first day of the Advisory Council meeting introduced research to be conducted by the Center’s Technion partners. Their work covers such subjects as differences in basic attention capabilities, comparative learning processes, control of task switching, and the use of cognitive game theory. The Technion partners are able to bring to the Minerva Center access to clinical patients of the Technion Medical School.

On both days of the meeting, the German members of the Advisory Council reported on their own research. Professor Prinz talked on interference between perception and action; Prof. Joachim Hoffman (University of Wurzburg), on the role of learning in the control of action; Prof. Frank Rosler (Phillipps University, Marburg), on sentence processing, mental imagery, and implicit learning. The Israeli members of the council--Prof. Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, Dean of Research; Prof. Peretz Lavie of the Technion; and Prof. Dan Zakay of Tel-University--briefly described their ongoing research.

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