Interrogation of Suspects

The interrogation of those suspected of wrongdoing, although of great importance to society, has not been researched extensively compared with other crucial topics in psychology and law. Effective interrogation (and therefore the prosecution and possible conviction) of guilty persons is of obvious and high relevance to police psychology and forensic psychology as is the successful interviewing of those suspects who are, in fact, innocent. A number of different approaches to interrogation have been adopted in various countries around the world. Some involve a pressurizing, dominating, and possibly coercive approach; others involve a more humane approach. Research on what really happens in police interviews and on how interviewees view these experiences forms the background for consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of these respective approaches.

In many countries, the interrogation of suspects has had a strong focus on the obtaining of confessions. Although this may be, in general, a useful approach, some psychology-law scholars have emphasized that false confessions do occur. Also, if the primary aim of interrogation is seen as the obtaining of a confession rather than an account from the suspect (which may include a confession), then it may be difficult to be sure that the confession is reliable. Psychological research has been helping the police forces in some countries to reassess how best to interview suspects.

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The Reid Interrogation Technique

In the United States (and many other countries), extensive guidance on how to interrogate suspects has largely come from a book (now in its fourth edition) written by John Reid and colleagues. This book advocates a two-phase approach. In the first phase, the interviewer seeks to obtain relevant information from the suspect. If during this phase the suspect does not either confess/admit to the crime or provide sufficient information to substantiate his or her innocence, or appears to be lying, then the second phase commences. During this phase, which is more of an interrogation than an interview, the interviewer is recommended to use a variety of tactics (involving a stepped approach) to get the (now presumed guilty) suspect to confess.

A major criticism made by some psychologists regarding this approach is that the symptoms/cues of deception/truthfulness that it recommends to be used to determine if suspects are lying have not been found to be valid by the many published studies on cues to lying. Indeed, recent research suggests that focusing on such cues could impair lie/truth-detection performance.

What Really Happens in Police Interviews?

Very few published studies exist regarding the actual effectiveness of the two-step approach. A seminal paper published in 1996 was based on 9 months of fieldwork with a large police department in the United States, during which the researcher sat in on more than 100 interviews with suspects (and observed another 60 that had been recorded on videotape). He found that the police used many of the interrogation tactics recommended in relevant publications. These he categorized into positive incentives (which suggest that the suspect will benefit/feel better if he or she confesses) and negative incentives (which suggest that the suspect confess because no alternative course of action is sensible). He concluded that the following techniques were very commonly used:

  • Undermining suspects’ confidence in their denial of guilt
  • Offering justifications for their behavior
  • Confronting suspects with fabricated evidence of their guilt

Some of the findings of this ground-breaking 1996 study were taken by others (along with their own reading of relevant guidance publications) to indicate that (a) police interviewing of suspects was a confrontational and accusatory process that purposely involved the application of considerable psychological pressure and (b) some of the recommended Phase 2 steps raised ethical questions (e.g., the discouraging/ preventing of denials).

In the United Kingdom, a similar, if smaller, 1980 observational study found that among the tactics used were the following:

  • Pointing out the futility of denial
  • Minimizing the seriousness of the offense
  • Manipulating the suspect’s self-esteem
  • Pretending that the police were in possession of more evidence than was, in fact, the case

In light of (a) this research finding, (b) some courts’ decisions and judges’ comments regarding inappropriate tactics and procedures being used, and (c) considerable media concern about the police interviewing of suspects, the government in England and Wales brought in legislation that from 1986 sought to discourage the use of unduly oppressive interviewing tactics (which could result in a confession not being deemed “voluntary”) and required that all interviews with suspects be fully recorded (e.g., on audiotape).

Around this time, police forces in England and Wales were also becoming aware of research on detecting deception (some conducted by officers themselves, usually as part of their university studies) that was making it ever clearer that generally applicable, valid behavioral cues to deception are unlikely to exist.

The audiotaping of interviews with suspects (routine since 1986) set the scene for a series of studies conducted in the late 1980s to analyze these. Such studies found that while few interviews were now unduly oppressive, the extent and level of interviewing skill was not high. For example, a common tactic was to inform suspects (truthfully) at the outset of the evidence against them. If such evidence was strong, many such suspects confessed. However, if the evidence was weak or moderate, many suspects did not readily confess when informed of the evidence against them. Analyses of the tape recordings revealed that when confessions did not occur in these situations, many police officers seemed not to know what to do next. (They would have been fully aware that the relevant legislation precluded undue pressure.) The primary tactic of revealing the evidence bears similarity to the first phase of the two-phase approach advocated in the United States (and many other countries). However, if this did not work, many British police officers seemed unaware of what could be done in Phase 2.

Reform of Interrogation Techniques

As soon as the research analyzing the tapes revealed this problem, the Association of Chief Police Officers, with support from the government, set up a working party to design new training and philosophy regarding the interviewing of suspects. This working party based their recommendations (which were adopted) on the fundamental realization that there are many essential similarities between the effective interviewing of suspects and the effective interviewing of witnesses/victims. For example, both need to be designed to encourage the interviewee to talk on relevant topics using methods prescribed by the law and various conventions on human rights. Thus, from 1992 on, all police officers in England and Wales had to undergo new training programs (the extent of which was determined by their job role) in what was termed investigative interviewing. The emphasis now was on “skills,” in particular skills relevant to (a) encouraging interviewees to provide accounts (including those that could corroborate a confession provided early in the interview) and (b) strategically (in a planned/prepared way) disclosing evidence (piece by piece) at appropriate points in the interview that would encourage the interviewee to provide more information and demonstrate to the interviewee that what he or she has said (or failed to confirm) contradicts the evidence.

Only a limited number of (relatively large) studies have been conducted/published that have analyzed interviews conducted by police officers who have received this new form of training. Among the major findings regarding interviews with suspects are the following:

  • Although most make good efforts to encourage the suspects to give an account, few seemed good at building rapport.
  • Use of leading questions and overtalking were relatively rare.
  • Challenging what the suspects said did occur in most interviews, but this was often done poorly.
  • Most interviewers did purposely provide, near the end of the interview, an opportunity for the suspect to correct or add to the officer’s summary of what the suspect had said.
  • Few interviews breached the law. (Of course, the officers who conducted these interviews did not know that later they would be analyzed in a research project.)
  • The tactics of “intimidation,” “situational futility,” “minimization,” and “maximization” (which would be of great concern to both psychologists and the courts) never or almost never occurred.

Even in interviews assessed as skilled (in terms of what the interviewer did and how this seemed to affect the suspects), however, some of the skills deemed important by police officers themselves were rarely present (e.g., empathy/compassion, flexibility, pauses/ silences). Nevertheless, almost all interviewers, even those who were less skilled, now successfully avoided releasing to the suspect all the evidence/information at the beginning.

Suspects’ Views on Interrogation

Until fairly recently, the only information available from suspects about their interrogation/interviews were anecdotes. However, 2002 saw the publication of a pioneering Swedish study (conducted by a former police officer) of a large sample of (subsequently convicted) suspects’ views about the police interviewing they had experienced. Many indicated via a postal questionnaire that their interviewers displayed impatience, condemning attitudes, and a lack of empathy— which the researcher classified as a “dominating” style. However, other suspects reported experiencing a more “humane” approach, and it was these whose confession rate was higher. This crucial finding could call into question the routine use of a dominating style. However, interviewee denial could cause a dominating style.

Importantly, subsequent research in Canada and Australia on suspects’ views can be taken to confirm the Swedish finding. In Canada, a large number of men in a maximum security prison, 45% of whom had confessed to the police, filled in a number of questionnaires. When asked what motivates suspects not to confess, the inmates indicated that “the negative atti-tude of the police officer” and “lacking confidence in the police officer” were among the most important factors. The researchers also examined which of the inmates’ questionnaire responses actually related to whether they had confessed or not and found that suspects’ perception of the strength of the evidence against them was significant.

The research in Australia asked convicted sex offenders what interviewers should do to increase the likelihood of a genuine confession. Their responses included being compassionate, neutral, clear, and honest and not making false accusations. When asked what would make confessions less likely, the most common response was officer aggression.

In light of research at the psychology-law interface (e.g., on police interviewing), a number of European countries have decided that their police officers be trained in what they call the “British approach.” While this approach may have a positive effect not only on minor criminals, who make up the vast bulk of police suspects, but also on major criminals (e.g., of the types studied in Sweden, Canada, and Australia), research on its effectiveness with the most dangerous perpetrators, such as terrorists, is not available. However, those who interview/interrogate suspects will want to be fully aware of what psychology and the law have to say.


  1. Buckley, J. (2006). The Reid Technique of interviewing and interrogation. In T. Williamson (Ed.), Investigative interviewing: Rights, research and regulation (pp. 207-228). Cullompton, UK: Willan.
  2. Bull, R., & Milne, R. (2004). Attempts to improve the police interviewing of suspects. In G. D. Lassiter (Ed.), Interrogations, confessions and entrapment (pp.181-196). New York: Kluwer.
  3. Davis, D., & O’Donohue, W. (2003). The road to perdition: Extreme influence tactics in the interrogation room. In W. O’Donohue & E. Levensky (Eds.), Handbook of forensic psychology(pp. 877-996). New York: Elsevier.
  4. Gudjonsson, G. (2003). The psychology of interrogations and confessions. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

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