Study finds that people who've gone through adversity don't always have the courage of their convictions.

A diploma from the so-called “School of Hard Knocks” may actually make a person more vulnerable to influence rather than self-reliant, according to recent research from the University of Leicester.

Kim Drake, a PhD candidate in psychology, set out to find a correlation between suggestibility and incidence of negative life experiences in childhood and adolescence, such as the divorce of one’s parents, a death in the family, recurring or chronic illness, bullying at school, sexual violence or early pregnancy. 

Drake and coauthors Ray Bull and Julian Boon scored the intensity and frequency of these negative life events among 60 subjects before testing each person according to the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale (GSS), which measures one’s willingness to accept someone else’s false retelling of an event over his or her own recollection.

The researchers found a very strong correlation between high suggestibility and occurrence of negative life events.

“People who appear on the outside to be the most dominant, the most resilient—people you’d think wouldn’t be suggestible at all—when you get them into the interview room, they completely fall to pieces,” said Drake. “We found that if someone had experienced a great deal of adversity through their childhood and adolescence, that it was those sorts of people who were significantly more susceptible to leading questions and more easy manipulated by the interpreter’s pressure, and they believed the misleading information more easily.”

Suggestibility has been primarily researched in a forensic context, such as in relation to false confessions or the role of childhood trauma in implanting false information about past sexual abuse, for example. The increased suggestibility levels of children and the mentally disabled have long been acknowledged in the court system, where young witnesses are allowed to give video-streamed testimony, which lets them speak without the pressure of aggressive prosecutors and large audiences.

Drake and her team explain their new suggestibility findings by pointing to childhood adversity’s long-term effects on self-esteem.

“If every time somebody makes a decision or answers a question or gives an opinion, they meet with negativity; if the majority of their time throughout their life they’ve met with negative consequences in response to their own actions, judgments, etc., then over a period of time those people will learn to mistrust their judgments,” said Drake.

Other suggestibility experts believe the mechanism causing this behavior must be more complex. 

Mitchell Eisen, the director of the forensic psychology program at California State University, Los Angeles, who testifies frequently in eyewitness cases in the Los Angeles courts, said that the Leicester group’s statements about the long-term effects of trauma are over-generalized.

“Some people who have negative life events are very hardy; they’re optimistic. They roll with it,” he said. “Other people have rather minor negative life events, and it affects them rather dramatically.”

Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at Williams College who studies false confessions, said Drake’s findings don’t pinpoint an exact cause and effect for suggestibility among vulnerable adults. 

“While it’s clear that you can use negative life events as a prediction of who’s vulnerable—that’s a strictly statistical matter—we don’t really know [what the mechanism is from Drake’s result],” he said. “It could be that these are different types of people to begin with, that some types of people may be more vulnerable to negative life experiences in the first place.”

Originally published May 31, 2006


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