What is a Cognitive Interview? - Questions, Techniques & Evaluation

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:08 Techniques
  • 2:58 Questions
  • 3:35 Process
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Quentin Shires

Quentin has taught psychology and other social science classes at the university level and is considered a doctoral colleague at Capella University.

In this lesson, learn what a cognitive interview is and how to complete one. Afterwards, take a quiz to see if you have what it takes to appropriately ask questions, use techniques, and evaluate the client during this process.

Definition of Cognitive Interview

Imagine if you were in a bank and three robbers came in, brandishing guns and demanding money. After grabbing thousands of dollars, the robbers continue pointing their guns at you as they run out the door. Would you be able to remember what the robbers looked like? Would you remember their eye color or be able to recall step by step what occurred within the last few minutes?

A cognitive interview is a method law enforcement uses that helps victims or eyewitnesses recall specific memories from a crime scene. The aim of these interviews is to help investigators find out and evaluate what happened during a crime on a step-by-step basis.

Because most crimes last as little as a few minutes, victims rely on their short-term memory to help them recall specific information. Unfortunately, because of this short time frame in which crimes occur, as well as the intensity of most crimes and the traumatic emotions that are associated with them, most individuals cannot recall specific identifying information or step-by-step actions.

Cognitive Interview Techniques

Law enforcement officers typically complete basic interviews with victims or witnesses. This includes asking for pertinent details about the crime that occurred and requesting detailed information during the time when victims are suffering emotional aftereffects of the crime. Unfortunately, this often leads to uncertainty and confusion. Cognitive interviews, on the other hand, use different techniques that help victims or witnesses remember things that may otherwise be forgotten or go unnoticed.

Mental reinstatement allows interviewees to use their five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Using this technique allows victims to re-experience the crime in a safe place, while taking their time to remember non-pertinent information regarding the events. For example, an individual that witnessed a bank robbery may be asked to remember any sights, sounds, or smells they experienced before and during the crime. Researchers state that this helps trigger our abilities to remember short-term events and provide law enforcement with accurate details.

Individuals who are undergoing a cognitive interview may also be asked to retell the events in a different narrative order. Changing the order of our narrative storyline, such as working backwards from the end to the beginning, increases our chances of remembering things that we might have forgotten. For example, witnesses who experienced a bank robbery may be encouraged to recall information from when the robbers left the bank, backwards until they entered the bank.

Reporting every detail is another technique that is used in a cognitive interview. Victims are encouraged to report every single detail that they remember, no matter the significance. For example, remembering what they ate for breakfast at the café before the robbery took place may help trigger information that is pertinent to the crime.

Cognitive Interview Questions

Although there are no specific questions that are asked within a cognitive interview, we have to be careful with the way questions are phrased. Cognitive interviewers typically use open-ended questions when completing an interview, which allows victims and eyewitnesses to tell their story in their own words and in their own time.

Open-ended questions are questions that are answered without using a 'yes' or 'no' reply. For example, a question that could be asked in a cognitive interview could include, 'Tell me what you were doing before the bank was robbed.' This allows the eyewitness or victim to provide their perspective on the events that occurred without interruption.

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