Critical evaluation of the use of Cognitive Interviewing in Investigative interview of witnesses

Critical evaluation of the use of Cognitive Interviewing in Investigative interview of witnesses


The process of criminal investigation heavily relies on gathering of information partly from the accounts given by eye witnesses. The interview style adapted during investigative interview of witnesses has major implications on the amount of information that is gathered from the subjects. This brings out the importance of cognitive interview. As explained in this paper, cognitive interview uses simple mnemonic techniques to get the interviewee to remember details of the scene, thereby enabling the interviewer to gather more information than would be gathered using standard methods (Orthmann & Hess, 2012, p. 190). This paper provides a critical evaluation of the usefulness of this interview style in the investigative interview of witnesses.


As mentioned, cognitive interviewing helps forensic searchers to gather much more information from witnesses than what can be gathered using standard interview method. There are four main cognitive interview approaches used by forensic searchers. One of these is the context reinstatement technique. In this approach, an interviewer helps a witness in reconstructing internal (personal) and external (physical) contexts which existed during the time when an incident of research occurred (Milne, 1997). The interviewer asks the witness to form mental impressions of the environmental features of the original scene using objects located in the interview room or area. The witnesses may also be asked to comment on their emotional reactions to the incident and any smells, sounds or other important conditions that were present. The effectiveness of retrieval cues in this case is dependent on the extent to which the text context overlaps with the context of research. According to Tulving and Thomson (1973, p. 356) this approach is effective in retrieving much information from witnesses, provided that the information had been successfully retained in the mind of an interviewee after the incident. However, some studies have shown that this technique has transient effects that are unfavorable to the process of information gathering. The witness may not be able to effectively relate the test to the original context, hence, leaving important details (Memon & Bruce, 1985, p. 350 & Eich, 1995, p. 295). Despite this, this is one of the most accurate interview techniques, as Milne (1997) explains.

The second component of cognitive interviewing is to ask the interviewee to report all details related to an incident. The witness is encouraged to report all information, including that which may seem to be irrelevant or that which they only remember partial details (Fisher & Geiselman, 1992). According to Memon and Bull (1991, p. 298), this technique is effective in facilitating the recall of more information. Most importantly, pieces of incomplete information gathered from different witnesses regarding the same incident can be combined to form valuable information. However, this technique may sometimes lead to gathering of too much irrelevant and misleading information regarding an incident (Memon & Bruce, 1985, p. 354). Regardless of this, this is one of the most useful cognitive interview tools.

The third technique is to ask the witness to try to recall details of an incident from different perspectives (Milne, 1997). The witness is asked to place him or her self in the shoes of the witnesses or other witnesses and report information about the incident from these perspectives. This technique is based on the assumption that a change in the perspective through which a witness looks at the details of a scene leads to a change in retrieval description, hence allowing the witness to recall new information from the new perspective. The objective of this technique is to use several pathways of information retrieval and hence, increase the amount of information elicited from a witness. However, concerns have been raised regarding the effectiveness of this technique in gathering credible or valuable information. Memon and Koehnken (1992, 40) argued that the changes in perspective for reporting may confuse the witness and lead to fabricated information. According to Memon and Stevenage (1996), this technique has even been widely avoided by forensic searchers with some of them expressing concerns that the instructions may mislead witnesses. Despite this, this technique has been proven workable and useful method of soliciting additional information from witnesses. Milne (1997) explains that this technique can produce accurate information, just like the other cognitive interview techniques but it may not increase the volume of information gathered from a witness any more than the other methods.

The fourth cognitive interview component involves providing instructions to a witness to try to recall information from different starting points (Milne, 1997). Usually, witnesses feel the need to start from the beginning and are allowed to do so. However, this technique allows for a more extensive and extra-focused retrieval by encouraging the witnesses to remember information in various orders, from beginning, from the middle, from end or from the event that is most memorable. This approach has similar impact to the ‘change perspective’ instructions in that it is believed to change retrieval description, enabling a witness to recall more information. Geiselman and Callot (1990, p. 141) noted that a recall in the forward order followed by a recall in the reverse order is more effective than two attempts to recall in the forward order. However, argument provided in this technique lacks support from statistical evidence. According to Memon et al (1997) there is no evidence that a change in the order or recall can yield additional information when applied in a cognitive interview. Nevertheless, Milne (1997) noted that this instruction has some benefits when used in specific prompts.


Cognitive interviewing is a useful tool that helps to yield additional information during investigative interview of witnesses. There are four cognitive interview approaches used to elicit information from witnesses namely, context recreation technique, asking the witness to provide all details related to a scene, change of perspective instructions and instructing the witness to recall information from different starting points. As noted, criticisms have been raised regarding the effectiveness of these approaches on the memory of a witness. Therefore, there is need for additional research investigating the specific affects and applicability each of these cognitive interview techniques.


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