Cognitive Interview vs. Police Interrogation

Cognitive Interview vs. Police Interrogation

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In this article, continuation of the psychology of the testimony, we are going to deal with some issues related to the techniques of obtaining the statements of witnesses, victims or suspects. Specifically, the cognitive interview, as a technique used by forensic psychologists experts in the criminal and criminal area.

Police interrogation or standard interview

Traditionally, the so-called standard interview has been used. to obtain information, for example, in the police field. In a standard interview, two phases are distinguished:

  • Narrative phase: where a simple question is asked: What happened? or tell me what you remember. The information obtained in this phase is characterized by its accuracy. There is no risk of inducing the response from the interviewee. However, this is accompanied by a huge poverty of details
  • Interrogative phase: The interviewee answers specific questions in order to alleviate this poverty of details. However, there are certain risks that depend on the type of question asked and its internal structure

Types of questions in the standard interview

They differ two broad categories of questions:

  • The Open questions They require an extensive statement. It would be the kind of questions asked during the narrative phase
  • The closed questions Are those that are answered with few words. The authors in turn differentiate them into three types:
    • Identifier: require the description of people, places, moments….
    • Selection: multiple-choice questions from which an answer must be selected.
    • If not: They answer only with a yes or no.

Each of these types of closed questions has its own problems.

  • If not: affirmative bias It tends to always answer yes, regardless of the content of the question.
  • Selection: the risk of contamination is greater. You are inducing a response that may be false.
  • Identifier: may contain post-event information that contaminates the memory of the interviewee. Eg what was the gun like? It can lead to a description of a weapon that you never saw and that from now on you will remember seeing. The weapon perhaps existed in the erroneous account of another witness.

So that, the risk of closed questions Given in the second phase of the standard interview is that the question may be suggestive. That is, indicate what is the desired response. This leads us to a conclusion:

There is the possibility of asking biased questions that induce a false answer in the interviewees. All this has led some experimental psychologists to develop an alternative interview procedure that allows obtaining maximum information without risk of suggesting the answer. This technique is known as cognitive interview

Cognitive interview

The cognitive interview is based on 2 widely accepted principles of memory.

  1. Memory traces are composed of various characteristics and The effectiveness of the memory depends on the number of features related to the event that have been encoded
  2. There is a great variety of clues that facilitate memory or different ways to recover the encoded event. Information that is not accessible by one way can be by another.

Fisher and Geiselman (1992) propose some requirements from which to understand the procedure of cognitive interview:

  1. Minimize sources of distraction unnecessary since the memory demands concentration.
  2. The memory is influenced by thoughts, emotional reactions, psychological state and physical environment that existed during the event. Recreating this context at the time of the interview can be very useful.
  3. If the witness is wrong or does not remember a detail, this does not mean that the rest of the information you have given is unreliable.

What is the cognitive interview?

Consists of 4 general techniques plus a few complementary ones to remember the details.

  1. Context Reinstatement: it consists in mentally reconstructing the physical and personal context that existed at the time of the crime. Eg Physical details of the scene, their emotional reactions, describe sounds, smells, temperature, luminosity, etc.
  2. Report everything: You are asked to tell everything you remember, including seemingly irrelevant information.
  3. Change of perspective: the witness is asked to put himself in another place on the scene and report what he had seen (objective, retrieve the greatest number of details).
  4. Remember in different order: It consists of the witness remembering the event in a different order. Ex. Start counting from the end or half.
    • Auxiliary techniques for remembering details (only if necessary):
      1. Physical appearance did the attacker remind someone known? Was there anything unusual on his face?
      2. Names: if you think a name was given but you can't remember it, try to remember the first letter, the number of syllables.
      3. Conversations and speech traits: if unusual or foreign words were used, someone spoke with an accent or stutter….

Research shows how the cognitive interview allows more accurate information about people, objects and situations. at the same time that does not increase errors.

The advantages of the cognitive interview versus the standard are

  • Obtaining very rich information
  • The assurance that this information has not been biased by the interviewee

The disadvantages of the cognitive interview

  • Its temporary cost and complexity
  • It requires the training of interviewers


  • Godoy, V., & Higueras, L. (2005). Forensic application of the cognitive interview: description, evolution and current situation.Yearbook of legal psychology15, 41-54.
  • González Álvarez, J. L., & Ibáñez Peinado, J. (1998). Police application of the Cognitive Interview.Clinical and Health8(1), 61-77.
  • Hairstyle, J. I. (2008). The cognitive interview: a theoretical review.Legal and Forensic Clinical Psychopathology8(1), 129-160.


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