Post No.: 0339
(The room is dark apart from the light of a single lamp blazing right in the suspect’s face. In the shadows, Furrywisepuppy is wearing a trench coat and fedora hat too why not for the hell of it!..)
Traditional or old-school police interviews or interrogations with eyewitnesses or suspects tend to involve frequent interruptions. They’re inclined to focus on only details seemingly relevant to the investigation, which can present a confirmation bias and the ignoring of any information that doesn’t fit into the interrogator’s presumed conclusion. And such interrogations also tend to employ the use of the direct question-and-answer format, which can create false memories due to leading questions, which are questions that suggest a particular answer or contain information that the interrogator has a bias to confirm.
The ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine (one interrogator shows sympathy while another shows antipathy), as mostly seen only in the movies, can also produce false positives or false confessions if the ‘bad cop’ uses deceit, such as by lying about found evidence or falsely claiming that a co-suspect has squealed; especially if leniency is promised in exchange for a confession, and especially if the suspect is young or has an intellectual disability.
A ‘cognitive interview’, on the other paw, understands that memory traces are usually complex and fragile. How easy a memory is to recall depends on how much informational overlap it has with the cues being used to retrieve it. According to the ‘encoding specificity principle’, when something is remembered, the resulting memory also contains other information, such as the context of what has been remembered. The more overlap between the information stored in memory and the information that is already available to the individual, the better the chance of a recall. (Therefore if you can tie what you want to remember with something that you can already easily remember then it’ll increase the probability of remembering what you want to remember.) So reminding an individual of the context in which they saw or heard a detail often increases the chance they’ll successfully recall that detail.
Any given memory can also be accessed via a number of different retrieval cues, thus if one cue doesn’t work then try another. You’ve probably experienced, many times before, the sudden retrieval of a memory as a result of something that helped trigger it, such as after being reacquainted with a particular object, overhearing a certain phrase or coming across a distinctive smell that was associated with the memorised event.
A cognitive interview also asks more open-ended questions and fewer direct questions that are looking for specific answers, and hence the technique asks fewer leading questions that might plant false details that reshape a witness’s memory – for example, the question, “Can you explain what happened during the brawl?” already suggests that it was a brawl rather than possibly something less violent. An interviewer should try to allow witnesses or suspects to lead the recall themselves, from the start of the day in question to the end, and in greater detail than they might think they need to give. An interviewer should encourage a witness or suspect to provide a narrative recounting of the events they saw and heard at the scene and not interrupt their flow. Their thoughts and feelings matter too.
Closed-ended questions (e.g. ‘yes or no’ answer questions) may seem more focused and efficient, but important details that an eyewitness may not think are relevant or useful to the investigation may be missed out as a result. Plus they only elicit brief and certain answers, thus if the eyewitness is uncertain then he/she might only give minimal details or none at all if asked directly. (If you’d like to specifically learn more about eyewitness accounts then please check out Post No.: 0275.)
Keep them calm and praise their effort. Just prompt them by asking, “And then what happened next?” or, “Anything else?” unless they really go off on a tangent. It’s sometimes the seemingly irrelevant details that can lead onto important and relevant disclosures.
Letting an eyewitness or suspect start from the start of the day and step through their day as it progressed echoes the ‘memory palace’ recall improvement technique of creating a journey when trying to remember a sequence of items – where each item is made to connect to the next item in the sequence and hence recalling one item prompts the retrieval of the next and so forth. It’s far more difficult to recall, for instance ‘the twelfth item’, straight off from the top of your head. It’s why we sometimes need to sing the entire verse of a song from the start until we can remember a specific line we want to recall. Or it’s like retracing one’s furry steps if one has misplaced one’s chew toy. With actual journeys or real-life events, each event in a sequence of events is naturally associated or connected with the immediately prior and following events temporally, because one did one thing, which led to the next, and then the next thing and so forth. So rather than expect them to remember ‘the twelfth item’ straight off – let them step through the events of the incident in order, starting from a few moments before it started, even if some details seem irrelevant.
In combination with context reinstatement, the cognitive interview technique encourages witnesses to provide much greater detail about what they had witnessed. Some drawbacks to note though are that the cognitive interview is only useful with cooperative eyewitnesses, it takes more time to conduct, more effort and skill on the part of the interviewer, and it’s about improving recall and not about recognition memory (e.g. recognising a suspect in a line-up).
‘Investigative interviewing’, in contrast to traditional interrogations, seeks to establish rapport with the interviewee and only implements a direct, positive confrontation of the suspect via open-ended, exploratory questioning. This can be used to elicit confessions or other self-incriminating statements, although the overall goal is to gather information rather than a confession, and to yield cognitive cues that may indicate deception. The interviewer must never utilise trickery or deception him/herself though (this is illegal in many countries now anyway). A relaxed atmosphere should make people less defensive and more willing to talk.
The interviewer will next explain the allegation, the seriousness of the offence and emphasise the importance of honesty, and then ask the suspect to provide his/her own version of events and actively listen without interrupting them. Once a full account has been given, the firmer questioning can begin, which will include highlighting any inconsistencies or contradictions that may have been found. But like the cognitive interview, it requires cooperation from the suspect and if the suspect doesn’t wish to talk then there’s nothing the interviewer can legally do – albeit it could be assumed that everyone will want to express their own side of the story, especially if they are innocent.
In lab conditions at least, an investigative information-gathering approach results in slightly more true confessions being generated compared to hard interrogations or a combination of the two approaches, and crucially with far fewer false confessions too.
Another protective factor against false confessions is to have a lawyer or independent person present during interviews or interrogations, and maybe to videotape the interrogations to see if coercion was used.
Woof! Real-life police interrogations aren’t like what you often see in the movies in many ways!