A CRITICAL EVALUATION
Ralph B. Allison, M.D.
Prepared for presentation at the
Fifth Annual Spring Conference of the
International Society for the Study of Dissociation
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
May 11, 1995
Published in the Newsletter of the American Academy of
Psychiatry & the Law
(c)1995 Ralph B. Allison, M.D.WHAT IS COGNITIVE INTERVIEWING?
Cognitive Interviewing (CI) is a set of four mnemonics
(techniques for improving the memory) derived out of memory
research laboratory studies by others, collected by two
professors of psychology, for use by police officers in
interrogating witnesses of crimes. R. Edward Geiselman, Ph.D. of
UCLA and Ronald Fisher, Ph.D. of Florida International
University packaged these four recommendations in 1985 after
hypnosis was banned in the courts of California and most other
states.1 After hypnosis had been banned by the California
Supreme Court for use with any witnesses to crimes, Dr.
Geiselman met with Martin Reiser, Ph.D., then in charge of the
LAPD Behavioral Science unit. He and Dr. Fisher then published
research describing procedures that they believed could be
quickly taught to officers. They advocated them as safe from the
legal challenge against using hypnotic techniques in questioning
witnesses. In the past ten years, they have taught "Cognitive
Interviewing" to police officers in the USA, Canada, England,
Germany and Israel. Until April, 1995, there had been no USA
court challenge to the use of CI, when a Kelly-Frye hearing on
the use of CI in a double murder case (People v Tuggle) was held
in the Superior Court of San Luis Obispo county, California.
MNEMONIC NUMBER ONE: CONTEXT REINSTATEMENT
"The witness is then asked to mentally recreate the period
before, during, and after the crime. He is encouraged to vividly
recall the setting and circumstances of the crime. The typical
daily pattern of routine tasks, errands, and problems of the
time leading up to the crime are reviewed. He experiences again
his thoughts, his actions, his emotions, and his attitudes as
they unfold in his mind. By reliving the event and placing it in
the context of his normal day, the witness is led to concentrate
more intensely on the details of the crime."2
MNEMONIC NUMBER TWO: REPORTING ALL DETAILS
"Normally, when a witness is recounting his story, he will skip
over what he considers the unimportant details to avoid boring
the listener. In this technique, the witness is now instructed
not to edit his impressions of the event. He is encouraged to
provide every detail, no matter how significant it seems to him
or how unsure he is that he has accurately remembered it."3
MNEMONIC NUMBER THREE: CHANGE THE ORDER OF REPORTING EVENTS
"At the beginning of the interview, the witness narrated his
story in chronological order. Now the investigator, by a series
of questions, leads the witness to consider the events in a
different sequence. If a reverse order is chosen, the
investigator, at pauses in the interview, might ask the witness:
'What did you do before that?' Step-by-step, the investigator
will lead the witness backwards through each stage of the event.
In the normal course of a narrative, the mind tends to truncate
experiences and skip over details anticipating reaching the end.
When the order of events is changed, the mind naturally pauses
at each stage until instructed to continue. This technique
compels the witness to consider each stage of an event as a
separate incident and may result in recall of forgotten
details."4MNEMONIC NUMBER FOUR: CHANGE PERSPECTIVE OF VIEWING THE EVENT
"In this exercise, the witness is encouraged to view the event
from a different perspective than his own. He may adopt the
point of view of the victim, the suspect, another witness, or an
imaginary video camera on the wall. By experiencing the crime
through 'someone else's eyes,' the witness may recall details
that had not previously occurred to him."5
In the Kelly-Frye hearing mentioned above, both Drs. Geiselman
and Fisher testified that these mnemonics could be taught in 20
minutes to police officers without any prior training in
psychology or memory theory. They also accepted any
modifications that any officer cared to add to their procedure.
The officer in the case in question had also instructed the
witnesses, while "reliving the event," to see the event as a
movie or videotape, "freeze frame" the images, and "telephoto
in" on the object. He also introjected himself into the scene,
asking one witness to consider him, the officer, as riding along
side her in her car. Neither Dr. Geiselman nor Dr. Fisher
objected to these instructions by that officer as violating the
recommended procedures they taught as CI.
In the same textbook, the following is a description of
hypnotic techniques in interviewing, adapted from Reiser, M:
Handbook of Investigative Hypnosis. Los Angeles, Lehi
Publishing, 1980. "Many law enforcement agencies have
established special units to employ hypnosis in interviewing
witnesses. The training of police officers in these techniques
must be conducted by a qualified psychologist or a physician
skilled in medical hypnosis. The technique most often used may
be described as 'the television technique.' The subject is to
relax and imagine he is sitting in a chair in his home watching
a videotape of the crime on his television set. Because reliving
the actual crime may be a frightening experience, the subject is
asked, rather, to watch it on television, a medium by which he
can feel a sense of detachment from the event. While under
hypnosis, the subject becomes very receptive to the suggestions
of the hypnotist. Through hypnotic suggestion, the subject is
led to believe that he can replay the imaginary videotape and
stop it on important images. Under the guidance of the
hypnotist, the subject can stop the tape at will and recall
details of the crime. This method has enabled witnesses to
provide a more complete account of the crime scene including
descriptions of people, places and vehicles. They have also
remembered statements, names, and, on occasion, even license
CLINICAL EVALUATION OF THE FOUR MNEMONICS
1. CONTEXT REINSTATEMENT:
A request for a witness to a crime to go back in time and be
there at the time and place of the event in question is asking
for AGE REGRESSION. There is no other way to do it, if the
instruction are explicit. If, instead, the interrogator said,
"Tell me what you remember about the day in question," then the
witness could chose his/her own way of reporting the scene. Some
would say, "I remember this happened," keeping in the past
tense. Some might choose to say, "I can see it again right now,"
and choose to age regress without instructions to do so. But
each witness could pick the way most comfortable for him/her to
respond to the request.
In CI, the interrogator commonly starts with this procedure
and, if the witness is a Grade 4 or 5 hypnotizable person,
he/she will have to go into a hypnotic trance to follow the
instruction. THERE IS NO WAY ANYONE CAN AGE REGRESS WITHOUT
GOING INTO HYPNOSIS, EITHER HETEROHYPNOSIS OR AUTOHYPNOSIS. If
the person is Grade 1-3, he/she will have difficulty in obeying
these instructions and may act as if he/she is visualizing
something while not actually seeing anything. He/she may feel
compelled to say anything to please the policeman/interrogator.
He/she may talk in the present tense about what he/she is
"seeing" with eyes closed, but will break into the past tense in
the second or third sentence, if allowed to report what he/she
sees "in his/her mind's eye." The latter phrase is commonly used
when people remember what happened, but are not reliving it, and
it is a safe way to recall the framework of the traumatic event.
But, if the witness is successful in age regressing, he/she IS
THEN UNDER HYPNOSIS, and any further images may be the product
of suggestion, imagination, etc., as well as truthful recall.
Since the event under review may have been one with a
significant amount of negative Emotional Overlay for the witness
(guilt or shame, for example), the witness will not be able to
relive the event without re-experiencing the guilt or shame.
THEY WILL NOT RELIVE SUCH A PAINFUL EVENT FOR A POLICE OFFICER.
If they are pushed by the officer to report something, they will
imagine whatever they think will please the officer. Such a
report will be from their imagination, supposition or
information they have gotten from someone else third-hand.
All of the laboratory research upon which CI is advocated for
"memory enhancement" involved voluntary subjects being asked to
recall emotionally neutral information, such as movies of a
crime being committed. They had no emotional investment in the
scene and so had no emotional blockade to remembering the entire
scene. There is no ethical way for experimenters to stage truly
emotionally traumatic events on campus, such as the killing of
the observer's best friend, to determine how much the witness
could recall a week later. Such an experiment would violate the
ethical rules of the university involved.
Once a Grade 4-5 hypnotizable person is age regressed, he/she
is going to respond to all instructions in a different manner.
For example, he/she will take all words literally. If the
interrogator asks him/her to visualize a movie or videotape,
he/she may see any movie that is currently popular, a fictional
story, instead of what really happened. Since humans do not
perceive the world in movie frame slices, any "freeze framing"
must be manufactured at the time. It cannot be true memory of
moving objects and people. Also, any "telephotoing in" must be
imagined, since the mind does not do that without lenses in
front of the eyes at the time of viewing. Such instructions can
well be taken by the then-suggestible witness as license to use
imagination to create the present report. THAT WHICH WAS NOT
PERCEIVED AT THE TIME OF REMEMBERING CANNOT BE RECALLED.
2. REPORTING ALL DETAILS
On the surface, this mnemonic seems harmless enough. There is
no suggestion that the person enter into an altered state of
consciousness. What is important to appreciate, however, is the
power differential that may exist between the interrogator and
the witness. In the textbook noted above is the following
"g) CONTROLLING THE INTERVIEW. The investigator's confidence
and authority communicate themselves to the witness. Hesitancy
and doubt encourage evasion; weakness fosters resistance. If the
witness appears to be one who will be difficult to control,
small psychological gestures will bring him under control. He
may be instructed to cease smoking or directed to a chair other
than the one he has selected. The difficult witness must learn
quickly that the investigator intends to dominate the
In our male dominated society, a female witness being
interrogated by a male detective is immediately in a "one-down"
position. She will tend to "read" the male detective to learn
which of her many comments meet with his approval, and she will
cease to mention any that do not appear to gain his approval.
Therefore, she will be picking and choosing which of her
observations she should offer to this powerful man, to keep him
In the case of male witnesses, in the case mentioned, it was
clear that a young man involved reacted in a way designed to
placate the middle aged male detective, while an older man held
his ground and approached the same detective more as an equal.
He had his script ready to tell and stuck to the details that he
considered important to him, the witness.
3. CHANGING THE ORDER OF REPORTING EVENTS
When I asked various friends what they would do if a policeman
asked them to tell their story backwards, all of them looked at
me with a puzzled expression on their faces. None of them knew
what that instruction meant. The immediate and universal
reaction was CONFUSION.
Confusion is an hypnotic induction technique that can be used
with recalcitrant persons. I have seen it used in hypnosis
course by professors who wished to show off their skill by
demonstrating a novel approach that would work with a student
who claimed never to have been hypnotized. One common method
they used was to issue commands (from a position of power) which
were inherently contradictory. The subject could not obey two
instructions at the same time if they conflicted with each
other. To avoid the conflict, the subject had to go into trance
to escape. I repeatedly saw such "never before hypnotized"
students go into trance with this confusion technique, which is
difficult for most therapists to do.
It is impossible to follow this instruction and come up with
true memories since events are only remembered in a forward
direction, the way they actually happened. The first question
each of my friends asked was, "What do you mean by that? Which
way do you want me to do it?"
There are two choices, neither one of which is specified by the
originators of CI. One choice is to take the last five minutes
before the end of the event in question and report on that
segment in detail going forward to the moment of the event. Then
the witness can take the second five minute segment before that
and report on what happened from 10 minutes before the event to
five minutes before that, etc. That method would at least
provide for an accurate reporting of the sequence of events
leading up to the event.
The other choice, and the one recommended by the interrogator
in this case, was to see the entire event as if it were on a
videotape being rewound and seen on a TV screen. In this case,
the witness is asked to IMAGINE the scene going in reverse,
since no one ever actually sees people running backwards at the
time. Therefore, all that can be reported must come from the
imagination of the witness.
Therefore, to ask someone to envision an historical scene in
reverse, without explicit instruction on how to do that, will
lead some of them into an hypnotic trance to escape the
confusion of not knowing how to please the powerful interrogator.
4. CHANGE PERSPECTIVE OF VIEWING THE EVENT
This is the most exotic of the four mnemonics of CI. The
original experiment in which this procedure was used to "enhance
memory" involved asking laboratory subjects to view a photograph
of a large house. At one time, they were asked to "view the
house through the eyes of a potential buyer." Another time they
were asked to "view the house through the eyes of a burglar."
Naturally, when following those instructions, they would
remember different details when reporting what they saw. From
this laboratory experiment came this fourth mnemonic.
But in the real world of criminal investigation, with the
instructions as quoted above, this mnemonic is an instruction to
IMAGINE data that the witness could not have perceived with any
of his/her five senses. If I only look at a man face on, I will
not be able to report on the size of the bald spot on the back
of his head. Yet, if I took the vantage point of another witness
who was standing behind this person, I should be able to
describe that bald spot perfectly.
The other hazard is that, if the witness takes the instruction
seriously, and is a Grade 4-5 hypnotizable person, he/she might
decide to take an Out-of-Body trip to accomplish this. This
would induce an hypnotic trance to accomplish such a feat. Such
a dissociative experience would not be healthy in the context of
a police interrogation session.
In the case in question, the interrogator asked one witness to
see herself at the foot of the man she pulled from a fiery auto
crash. Actually, she had stayed by his head, pulling him away by
one arm. She was asked to place herself at the man's feet and
look towards his waist. To do that would have required her to
imagine herself in front of a burning automobile, so close to
the fire she would have burned to death.
The Cognitive Interview technique is fraught with dangers, both
to the witnesses it is used with, and to the judicial system
which needs facts, not imagination. Unwittingly perhaps, the
inventors included three possible induction techniques among the
four mnemonics they recommend for use by psychologically naive
policemen. They failed to take into account the power
differential between police and witnesses, as well.
The inventors of CI also failed to differentiate the ability of
witnesses of laboratory experiments to recall what happened from
the ability of witnesses of crimes to recall what happened. In
the laboratory, there is little chance that any subjects will
have a negative Emotional Overlay to the memory in question. In
a crime scene, a very strong negative Emotional Overlay may
exist in one or more of the witnesses, depending on their
relationship to the suspects. The police are not likely to be
aware of this very important psychological fact, and they are
led to believe that the same scene will be remembered in the
same way by all witnesses.
CI will not improve the recall of traumatic events by witnesses
who feel shame or guilt about such events. All they can be
expected to do is to supply imaginary stories to fill in the
blanks they have in their memory, stories which they hope will
satisfy the detective in charge of the interrogation.
1. Fisher R, Geiselman R: Memory-Enhancing Techniques for
Investigative Interviewing; The Cognitive Interview.
Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1992
2. O'Hara C, O'Hara GL: Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation
(ed 6). Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL, 1994, p 122
3. Ibid. p 122
4. Ibid. pp 122-123
5. Ibid. p 123
6. Ibid. p 121
7. Ibid. pp 112-113