The cognitive interview

How can the reliability of eyewitness testimony be improved?

How do the police and lawyers interview witnesses?

Can witnesses be prevented from using their schemas to reconstruct memories?
Rationale behind the cognitive interview
As we have seen from research into the effects of misleading information, leading questions and age on eyewitness testimony, the memories eyewitnesses have for a crucial event can be extremely inaccurate. This seems to be because selecting information to store in long term memory is driven by schemas, encoding is based on meaning and is organised into schemas, and recall is reconstructive based on schemas that guide the eyewitness to recreating the event based on what they would expect to happen rather than what actually happened. The cognitive interview provides authorities with an interview technique that is less likely to activate schemas than a standard interview.

Gieselman at al (1985)
The cognitive interview has four main techniques:
1. Report everything. Witnesses may omit details they feel are irrelevant, especially if they do not fit into their existing schemas for that type of event. Encouraging them to report every detail, no matter how small, can increase witness accuracy.
2. Reinstate the context at the time of the event. Encouraging witnesses to recall how they felt, the weather, smells, time of day etc helps put the person back in time to the incident and may improve recall accuracy.
3. Change the order in which the event is recalled. Recalling events in reverse order, or from the middle and working backwards and forwards in time, can interrupt schema activation, make it harder for the witness to reconstruct a story that makes sense, and improve eyewitness accuracy.
4. Change perspective. Trying to adopt the viewpoint of a different witness, e.g. a prominent character in the incident, can encourage recall of events that may otherwise be omitted.


Research into the effectiveness of the cognitive interviewT

Geiselman at al (1985)
Geiselman et al compared their cognitive interview with a standard interview technique on 51 volunteer participants from a wide demographic background. Participants watched two films of violent crimes and 48 hours later were interviewed by trained police officers using either a standard interview or a cognitive interview. The results showed a significant increase in the number of correct items recalled using the cognitive interview, and a small decrease in the number of confabulated items (items of descriptions made up by participants to fit the story). This research was, of course, lacking in ecological validity as participants watched filmed incidents.
Geiselman 1985

Fisher et al (1989)
This was a study of real life cognitive interview performance. The researchers trained police detectives in Florida in the use of the cognitive interview, and compared their interview performable before and after training. After training, the detectives gained as much as 47% more useful information from witnesses to real crimes compared to when they had been using standard interview techniques.

Other research
Bekerian & Dennet (1993) reviewed 27 studies into the effectiveness of the cognitive interview schedule and found that the cognitive interview provided more accurate information than other interview techniques. Holliday (2003) showed children aged 5 to 9 a video of a child’s birthday party and interviewed them the next day using both cognitive and standard interview methods. They found that the cognitive interview yielded more correct details about the video than the standard interview, and so showed that it can also be very useful when interviewing children.





A Level exam tips
Answering a 12 mark question (PSYA1 AQA A specification)
Outline and evaluate the cognitive interview.
6 AO1 marks can be gained by introducing the cognitive interview as a tool to reduce schema activation and improve eyewitness accuracy, followed by an explanation of the 4 main techniques and examples of one or two of them. Some questions will be based on a scenario and so it is important to give examples that relate to that scenario.

6 AO2 marks will come from evaluating the effectiveness of the cognitive interview in comparison to a standard interview technique. Summarising and evaluating the research by Geiselman et al (1985), Fisher et al (1989), Bekerian & Dennet (1993), and Holliday (2003) will usually gain full marks.