A Preference for the Proximate Occurrence: Adults’ Relative Temporal Judgments and Interpretations of Children’s Judgments

Ella P. Merriwether, Melanie B. Fessinger, Stacia N. Stolzenberg, Angela D. Evans, Kelly McWilliams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Temporal information is often obtained from child witnesses using relative temporal judgments (e.g., “was it before or after…”) with recurring landmark events (e.g., their birthday). These judgments can be an issue because children have a “prospective bias” in which they preferentially look forward in time when using recurring landmark events. It is unclear based on past research whether adults share this bias or understand when children use it. Because adults control the legal system, developmental differences in interpretation of these judgments could lead to miscommunications or misunderstandings that can have consequences for both victims and defendants. The present studies examined adults’ relative temporal judgments (Study 1) and their interpretation of children’s relative temporal judgments when demonstrating or not demonstrating a prospective bias (Study 2). Adults did not have a prospective bias when making their own relative temporal judgments, and they perceived children who demonstrated a prospective bias as less convincing witnesses compared to children who did not demonstrate such bias. Yet, many adults believed that relative temporal judgments were appropriate questions and expected that children should be able to provide accurate temporal information in response to them. Thus, adults seemed unaware that the temporal information—or the prospective bias more specifically—affected their perceptions. Our findings suggest that alternative strategies to relative temporal judgments may be necessary to gather temporal information from children because prospective bias responses can unknowingly undermine their credibility as witnesses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPsychology, Public Policy, and Law
StateAccepted/In press - 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Child credibility
  • Child witnesses
  • Forensic interviewing
  • Prospective bias
  • Relative temporal judgments

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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