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Study notes

Cognitive Interview

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Upon review of psychological memory research and police interview techniques, Geiselman and colleagues (1985) identified a number of ways that standard police interview methodology could negatively affect eye witnesses’ recall accuracy of crimes.

For example, police questioning techniques often prompted regular jumps between memory modalities (such as describing physical appearances and recalling dialogue) and event recall in a non-chronological order.

Geiselman et al. therefore integrated effective memory recall techniques into a new questioning methodology - the cognitive interview - to achieve more detailed and accurate eye witness testimonies.

At the start of a cognitive interview, the interviewer attempts to help the witness feel relaxed, and seeks to tailor their language to suit the individual. The witness is then encouraged to recreate their internal and external conditions at the scene (e.g. the mood they were in, their thoughts, the weather, etc.), recalling the event backwards and forwards in time, and recalling it from other people’s perspectives. The interviewer aims to be non-judgmental and avoids personal comments throughout.

The interview focuses on utilising retrieval cues, as Geiselman et al. claimed that recalling details of an event in a variety of different contexts is key to ‘cueing’ retrieval of a large amount of accurate information from memory - which the standard police interview was restrictive in doing.

Evaluation of the cognitive interview

Strengths

- Fisher et al. (1990) found that witnesses reported greater detail in their accounts of crimes when American detectives had been trained to use the technique.

- The technique is more structured than the standard technique, and it seems appropriate for crime-related interviews to be very thorough in order to gather the detail required for a useful testimony.

Weaknesses

- Koehnken et al. (1999) found that witnesses recalled more incorrect information when interviewed with the cognitive interview compared to the standard interview technique, perhaps because more detailed recall increases the chances of making mistakes.

- The interview is far more time-consuming than the standard interview.

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