November 9, 2022
By Keith Clauson, M.A.
Most North American interrogation techniques are rooted in adversarial or accusatorial underpinnings.1 They are often domineering, use emotional leverage, minimize personal involvement, and attempt to pierce through resistance by challenging the subject with a twisted form of logic-based evidence,2 whether true or contrived. This article will present a different approach for investigators to consider that is based on empathy and trust.
There are several primary problems with an adversarial interrogation.
Resistance and Vulnerability
Common sense dictates that accusing a guilty person of a crime will probably make them become guarded or ask for a lawyer. Even rapport-based strategies supplementing an accusatorial approach are likely to fail against a wall of defensiveness and survival mechanisms. On the other hand, an innocent person may feel that salvation rests with giving in to such a tactic, even if just for temporary reprieve from the harshness intrinsic to custodial interrogations.3
Research has strongly associated adversarial interrogations with false confessions. One study found that 69% of subjects falsely confessed when confronted with psychologically manipulative and deceptive tactics.4 Although false confession rates are difficult to objectively verify, research on DNA exonerations determined that upward of 30% of those cases involved false confessions.5
There are two types of false confessions. Coerced-compliant false confessions involve innocent people who transition from denial to confession because they believe doing so will help them avoid a more stringent punishment or escape the overwhelming oppression of the interrogation. Alternately, coerced-internalized false confessions stem from innocent people who internalize interrogators’ misleading arguments, such as minimizing the subject’s involvement, rationalizing their behavior, or inferring their guilt using false or circumstantial evidence. This confusion can lead to the misinterpretation of real memories or even the creation of false ones to support this inference.6
Antagonistic interrogations manipulate the subject and rely heavily on instinct or imperfect notions of detecting deception. Much like conversations in real life, if an interviewer uses exploitive tactics only superficially grounded in rapport, the interaction comes across as disingenuous. Once the interviewee deduces this, any previously obtained trust is lost, and the defensive wall is resurrected once again.
The High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG),7 an entity comprising the FBI, CIA, and U.S. Department of Defense, funds research each year to study the science of interviewing and interrogation. This data has identified key concepts that now form the foundation for all HIG interviews — namely, that the primary way to increase intelligence yield is to treat the interviewee with empathy, respect, and genuine curiosity.
Underlying this approach is a theoretical concept rooted in motivational interviewing (MI), changing the dynamic of the interrogation and allowing for a conversational mindset instead of one based on tricks or tactics.
“Most North American interrogation techniques are rooted in adversarial or accusatorial underpinnings.”
MI originated from drug addiction therapy practices, during which the therapist attempts to elicit positive behavioral changes in the client. Like clinical interviews, law enforcement and intelligence officers should expose contradictions in subjects’ belief systems that form internal pressures. These are referred to as cognitive dissonance points, which can then be further explored and resolved, eventually leading to practical intelligence- or investigative-focused dialogue.
Goal-oriented discussions, established in a nonaccusatory, empathetic, and open-minded ethos, pave the way for increased intelligence yield and decreased use of counterinterrogation techniques. One study found that interviewers who built and maintained rapport were five times more likely to obtain either a comprehensive account or a confession from a subject.8
In a practical sense, there are five fundamentals of MI, referred to with HIG’s mnemonic, 3A2E.
These principles provide the pillars for empathetic conversations and can be applied on a virtually universal basis.9
Interviewers should display unconditional respect toward the interviewee. Acceptance forms the basis for rapport, without judgment or bias, between the participants.
While acceptance relies on the relationship and discourse between the interviewer and interviewee, it should not be confused with complicity or agreement with the subject’s behavior. One should have a positive regard for the interviewee’s position without condoning it as fact.
During interrogations, interviewers should emphasize to subjects that the decision to talk or cooperate is their personal choice and that they will not face coercion, force, or manipulation if they continue.
If the interviewee’s basic freedom is restricted or lost, a cognitive dissonance will often form, resulting in various semblances of self-defense mechanisms and resistance.10 As expected, self-determination, even with a decision as simple as whether to talk, can be powerful in establishing rapport and trust.
Law enforcement interviews often follow a rigid question and answer format. Unfortunately, this transactional template does not allow for a varied approach toward answers.
“Goal-oriented discussions, established in a nonaccusatory, empathetic, and open-minded ethos, pave the way for increased intelligence yield and decreased use of counterinterrogation techniques.”
The human brain contains millions of neural pathways coalescing through diverse pathways and domains.11 An interviewer can often find better results with a more holistic method of obtaining comprehensive answers by responding to the interviewee’s ideas and trains of thought, adapting to the flow of the conversation and carefully guiding it toward the desired outcome.12
In many definitions, empathy and rapport are synonymous. However, depending on one’s stance, empathy can be considered deeper than basic rapport. If the interviewer is genuinely attempting to discern the subject’s point of view, the latter will accept the attempt as a foundation for understanding and respect, readily establishing a shared positive regard.
As with acceptance, empathy should not be confused with sympathy. While it is vitally important to conceptualize the interviewee’s motives, one should not condone the person’s beliefs and actions. This kind of thinking can sometimes lead to biases that may negatively influence the direction and outcome of the interview.
The final cornerstone of MI involves drawing out the interviewee’s motives or beliefs without manifesting one’s internal biases. Evocation is one of the more nuanced principles of MI. An interviewer can evoke an automatic response based on the subject’s internalized, culturally grounded norms and expectations.13 For example, a reciprocated handshake is often an automatic reaction in North American cultural norms, contrasted to a bow in some Asian cultures.
Conversely, an interviewer could attempt more deliberate evocations.
- Double-sided reflection: Occurs when the interrogator creates a contrast between the subject’s statements or against known evidence.
- Reframing: Involves rephrasing an interviewee’s statement to attempt to understand their perspective while also potentially evoking expansion on the current topic or subtly guiding the conversation in a different direction.
- Amplification: Pushes the content slightly beyond what the subject has said to provoke further discussion or clarification.14
The difference between mainstream law enforcement interviews and those founded on motivational interviewing is clear. While transactional or adversarial interrogations still have their place, the best method for intelligence and information gathering is to treat people with dignity, respect, and empathy. Mutual respect is a universal concept, and when someone’s freedom, or even their life, is on the line, that respect can mean everything.
“One study found that interviewers who built and maintained rapport were five times more likely to obtain either a comprehensive account or a confession from a subject.”
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Clauson works with the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Richard Leo, “Inside the Interrogation Room,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 86, no. 2 (1996): 266-303, https://doi.org/10.2307/1144028; Lesley King and Brent Snook, “Peering Inside a Canadian Interrogation Room: An Examination of the Reid Model of Interrogation, Influence Tactics, and Coercive Strategies,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 36, no. 7 (2009): 674-694, https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854809335142; Barry Feld, Kids, Cops, and Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room (New York: New York University Press, 2013); and Saul Kassin et al., “Police Interviewing and Interrogation: A Self-Report Survey of Police Practices and Beliefs,” Law and Human Behavior 31, no. 4 (2007): 381-400, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10979-006-9073-5.
2 Fred Inbau et al., Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 5th ed. (Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2013).
3 Saul Kassin, “False Confessions: Causes, Consequences, and Implications for Reform,” Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1, no. 1 (2014): 112-121, https://doi.org/10.1177/2372732214548678.
4 Saul Kassin and Katherine Kiechel, “The Social Psychology of False Confessions: Compliance, Internalization, and Confabulation,” Psychological Science 7, no. 3 (1996): 125-128, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1996.tb00344.x.
5 Innocence Project, “DNA Exonerations in the United States,” accessed May 6, 2022, https://innocenceproject.org/dna-exonerations-in-the-united-states/.
6 Kassin and Kiechel.
7 For more information, see U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group,” accessed May 4, 2022, https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/terrorism/high-value-detainee-interrogation-group.
8 Dave Walsh and Ray Bull, “Examining Rapport in Investigative Interviews with Suspects: Does its Building and Maintenance Work?” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 27, no. 1 (2012): 81, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-011-9087-x.
9 Laurence Alison and Emily Alison, “Revenge Versus Rapport: Interrogation, Terrorism, and Torture,” American Psychologist 72, no. 3 (2017): 272, https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000064.
10 Sharon Brehm and Jack Brehm, Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control (New York: Academic Press, 1981).
11 Susan Carey and Elizabeth Spelke, “Domain-Specific Knowledge and Conceptual Change,” in Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture, ed. Lawrence Hirschfeld and Susan Gelman (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 169-200, https://www.harvardlds.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/domain-specific-knowledge-and-conceptual-change-2.pdf.
12 Petra Meier, “Mind-Mapping: A Tool for Eliciting and Representing Knowledge Held by Diverse Informants,” Social Research Update 52 (2007): 1-4, https://sru.soc.surrey.ac.uk/SRU52.pdf.
13 Leonard Horowitz et al., “How Interpersonal Motives Clarify the Meaning of Interpersonal Behavior: A Revised Circumplex Model,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 10, no. 1 (2006): 67-86, https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr1001_4.
14 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, Interrogation: A Review of the Science (September 2016) 18-19, https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/hig-report-interrogation-a-review-of-the-science-september-2016.pdf.