How Trust Leads to Truth: A Q&A on the U.S. Government’s Search for an Evidence-Based Interrogation Strategy

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Since 2010, a group of psychologists has been quietly working for a new U.S. intelligence unit on identifying and developing interrogation methods that work. It’s a task that, surprisingly, has largely escaped government attention until now. The methods currently used by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the military to question suspected or known terrorists—those methods simply haven’t been tested scientifically.

The unit they’re working for is called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG, which was created by President Barack Obama through executive order in 2010 to conduct interrogations of high-profile terrorism suspects. Following the end of the CIA’s highly controversial program of enhanced interrogation two years earlier, the President’s order for a new intelligence-gathering group gave the White House greater oversight of U.S. interrogations. Made up of professionals from the CIA, FBI, and Department of Defense, the HIG has conducted a number of high-profile interrogations including that of the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Christian Meissner, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, is the principal investigator of the HIG’s research arm, tasked with identifying and developing interrogation methods that are both ethical and effective. Since its launch four years ago, their unit has conducted dozens of studies on topics ranging from detecting deception to facilitating truthful confessions. All of their research is unclassified and peer-reviewed. A number of their studies were recently published in a special issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology, and they’ve published a brochure offering an overview of their findings here. What they’re finding—the drawbacks to confrontation, the importance of rapport, and the nature of truth-telling—could significantly change the way America’s military, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement conduct interrogations.

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s program of enhanced interrogation, we spoke with Meissner to learn more about America’s effort for ethical, evidence-based interrogation methods, what they’ve done, and what they’re learning.

Max Nesterak: As someone working on developing ethical interrogation strategies, what stood out to you in the coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s post-9/11 program of interrogation?

Christian Meissner: We learned the abuses were even more egregious than we might have thought, but it confirmed largely what we already knew. [The Senate Intelligence Committee did] a good job of trying to identify if those techniques led to the elicitation of good information or false information. While that’s helpful, it’s never going to offer us ground truth. From a scientific perspective, the best method for really understanding the validity of an approach is to be able to conduct an experiment. We’re limited, and we’ll always be limited I hope, in our ability to assess the effectiveness of these enhanced methods because their very use violates ethics. There’s no way I could, with any conscience, study the effects of enhanced interrogation methods to determine their scientific validity. What this creates is exactly what we’re seeing today—a report that is very detailed in its analysis of [coercive] techniques and providing anecdotes to support that. But on the other side, we continue to have supporters of the program citing anecdotes and examples in support of their position that the methods work. We will forever be plagued with those dueling anecdotes, because there’s no way to assess the scientific validity of those measures.

MN: As the principal investigator for HIG, you’ve been tasked with testing and developing effective, ethical interrogation techniques. What’s one method you’re finding is successful at eliciting information?

CM: We’ve looked at a number of strategic questioning techniques and approaches that not only seek to develop cooperation and communication but also seek to effectively elicit the memory component. If you look at any interrogation training program, I would challenge you to find where in their handbook or in their program they spend time talking about memory—how memory works, how memory should be elicited, how memories can be corrupted by certain questioning approaches, and the challenges of eliciting accurate memories. I think this is an area that interrogators believe is critical, but that they’re not sufficiently trained on. But it’s also an area that psychologists know very well.

The cues that are trained to law enforcement tend to be non-verbal and anxiety based…those are not very good cues to deception.

We have decades of research on how memory works, what questioning techniques are good and what questioning techniques are problematic. The cognitive interview, for example, was developed by Ron Fisher and Ed Geiselman as a method that could enhance the elicitation of accurate memories. We’ve deployed the cognitive interview in a number of ways within this program. A recent study was conducted by Ron Fisher at a federal training facility comparing the cognitive interview to their best interview protocol, what they currently train. It turns out the cognitive interview doubled the amount of information that was elicited compared with the very best method that’s taught by this training facility.

What’s interesting about the cognitive interview is not only does it elicit more information but it also facilitates assessing subjects’ credibility. There’s now decades of research on assessing credibility and which cues are useful and diagnostic when people are intentionally lying or deceiving. It turns out the cues that are trained to law enforcement tend to be non-verbal and anxiety based. You’re lying because you’re fidgeting. You’re lying because you’re nervous and anxious when I ask questions. It turns out those are not very good cues to deception.

In fact, the very best cues to deception have to do with how people tell their stories, the narrative that they provide, and the narrative that they bring to it based on what they know. Truthful narratives, truthful experiences, truthful memories are different from deceitful or fabricated memories. Truthful memories are more embellished. They’re more detailed. They’re more compelling and nuanced. One of the counter-intuitive findings from the literature is that truthful memories actually change over time. They’re less consistent over time because of the way memory works. Most interrogators would say if they’re inconsistent, they’re lying.

MN: How does a cognitive interview work?

CM: Imagine you’re conducting a counterterrorism interrogation, and you’re interested in a meeting that I had a year and a half ago. You’re interested in who I was meeting with, what we were talking about, where the meeting took place, what was said, what the plan was.

The cognitive interview begins with some instructions to the subject which essentially says, “I’m here to listen. I want you to take a few moments and think back to that particular meeting. I’m going to allow you to tell me about that meeting, and I’m not going to interrupt you. Whenever you’re ready, start from the beginning and go all the way to the end and then we’ll do some follow-ups.”

What’s interesting to me about the cognitive interview is that it flies in the face of how investigators are trained. Investigators are trained to ask probing questions. They’re trained to get at the specifics of the incident. They’re trained to confirm their information, their knowledge, their intelligence, their evidence, and to develop new leads.

So let’s say, I gave you my narrative. It wasn’t all that complete because I’m lying to you, but it was a sketch. You would provide some positive feedback. You would say, “That was really helpful, that was very good information. Listen, I’d like to do some follow-up exercises and I’d like you to tell this story again but we’re going to do some different things. This time, I need for you to close your eyes and think back to the meeting, and I want you to think about where you were sitting in the room, what the room looked like, who were sitting around you and where they were sitting. I’d like you to take a moment and think about what the room smelled like. Were there any sounds that were happening outside the room or in the room? What was the temperature? Was it cold or warm? Just put yourself mentally back in the room.”

This is what we call a context reinstatement instruction, and we know from a lot of good experimental research that it leads to better remembering of the event narrative. Another retrieval cue you could use is to ask people to draw a sketch. You could offer them a piece of paper and ask them to draw the layout of the room, “Where was the table? Where were you sitting?” It sounds like a silly activity to engage a subject in, but it turns out this is a great way of generating additional retrieval cues.

This is also a great way of distinguishing people who are lying from people who are telling the truth. These techniques will lead a truthful person to actually generate more details. It will lead a deceitful person to be as consistent as they can. The narrative would remain very similar to the first time they talked about it, and the sketch they provide would be rather bare bones.

MN: It sounds like this approach also gives people the room to admit they were lying before or to change their stories. I can imagine changing one’s story is particularly difficult in an interrogation setting.  

CM: Exactly. It’s all about that trust that’s built with the investigator. It’s about a context of cooperation. It’s about giving them autonomy to talk and allowing them to talk. Having observed many interrogations over the years, I think investigators often approach a subject with the suspicion that the individual is guilty or knows something and believing that their job is to get that very piece of information out of them. That they want to move it along quickly. That they want to essentially force the information out by using techniques that lead to maximization, and provoke anxiety and stress in the subject and essentially force that information to be provided to them.

The more you can treat them in a respectful way, the more you can humanize them, the more that you can relate to them, the more likely you are to elicit cooperation from them.

When we train investigators, we often talk about this continuum of social influence, where on the one end to your far right you have complete compliance. Any question that’s asked is answered. On the other end, you have complete independence, in which the subject is choosing whether or not to respond and may not respond at all to your request. We ask investigators, where would you like them to be on this continuum, and invariably they point to the far right side, the compliant side. But then we talk to them a little more about the method, and we come back to this continuum of social influence and we lead them to the conclusion that really, where you want to be is left of center. You want a subject who is going to tell you what they know and admit what they don’t know. You want a subject who acts with some degree of independence and you can deal with that autonomy or independence in very strategic ways, but if you’re on the compliant side, the far right side, what are you going to get? You’re going to get the answer that you’re seeking for every question that you ask. That information may be valid. That information may be not valid.

MN: All of these techniques rely on some form of cooperation. Why would a detainee cooperate with an American interrogator?

CM: We often have a stereotype of these individuals as ideologically-driven zealots. The stereotype we have of the terrorist is incorrect. Some of them in fact may be committed to certain religious or ideological beliefs, but in fact, they’re often motivated by things that you and I would be motivated by, too. I think just a bit of perspective-taking, which we encourage interrogators to engage in, begins to reveal that. Many of these individuals who are a part of violent extremist groups are recruited for a variety reasons, which are, on closer inspection, seemingly rational. They’re recruited because they perceive an injustice has been done to them or their families or their social groups. They become part of a movement because of economic oppression or issues of justice and fairness that they feel needs to be rectified. If you think about the motivations that lead individuals to join these groups as being somewhat rational, you begin to see that there’s a way to demonstrate empathy and understanding and to develop cooperation through perspective-taking, through signs of respect and discussion.

I think I mentioned Ali H. Soufan, who wrote The Black Banners. He was very effective at displaying empathy and understanding through his conversations with individuals. He didn’t come in and yell at them. He didn’t browbeat them. He didn’t put them in stress positions. He took his time and he communicated with them.

MN: What have you found are the most successful ways of building this kind of rapport with a detainee?

CM: We’ve approached rapport through a number of angles. One has to do with the approaches that one might create in terms of positive emotions. For example, affirming somebody’s self-concept, what the military calls pride and ego-up—boosting their ego, flattery, finding ways to show respect and show appreciation for who [they] are as individuals.

There are certain things that we’re very proud of in our lives whether it’s accomplishments in our professional lives or even our personal lives. Many of us are very proud of our children, and we take great pride in the positive characteristics and attributes of our children. There are ways, as somebody who’s trying to develop rapport, of boosting one’s ego, using flattery or engaging the subject in talking about things that affirm their self-concept. I could simply just ask, “tell me about your kids. Tell me about your family.” These are ways of affirming the self-concept, of making people feel good about themselves, and it’s a way of showing respect and building rapport.

Interrogators will often seek to establish cross-cutting identities. One of these has to do with similarities. The more similar we are to one another, the higher the likelihood that we are going to develop cooperation and liking towards one another. We may look very different, we may speak different languages, we may have very different histories. At the same time, we might both be fathers, we might both be devoted to our cause, we might both be religious, though our religions might be different. These are shared characteristics that are positive attributes that, as an interrogator, I might seek to highlight as a way of developing rapport and demonstrating similarity. I want to get people away from thinking that we’re different and we’re on different teams, and my ultimate goal is to get you to see I’m somebody who is more like you than unlike you.

There are also ways to increase rapport through non-verbals and through conversational pragmatics. Laurence Alison recently published a study in Psychology, Policy and Law, where he coded more than 400 counterterrorism interrogations conducted in the U.K. He developed coding metrics for rapport having to do with autonomy, empathy, engagement, active listening skills and such. What Laurence found was that these conversational pragmatics and the way the interrogator allows the subject to have autonomy, the way the interrogator expressed empathy, the way they engaged them with active listening skills, all signaled rapport and facilitated the disclosure of actionable intelligence in those counterterrorism investigations.

MN: I understand that you’ll be running a field study with the military to assess some of the methods you’ve been developing. Can you talk more specifically about that work?

CM: We’ve worked with Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the law enforcement arm of the Air Force. We’ve worked with the HIG trainers and others to develop a week-long training protocol of those methods that we feel are ready to be used. They’re taught how to build rapport, how to engage in good active listening, to ask good open-ended questions, and how to use the cognitive interview. They’re given opportunities to practice those techniques and practical exercises and given feedback by the trainers.

It’s really interesting to see these investigators come in initially with a degree of skepticism about the potential efficacy and utility of these science-based methods. They’re very different from the methods that they’ve been taught in the past. Some of the investigators in this training have 20 plus years of experience. But what’s amazing to me is by the second day, you see this real shift in their attitude and the extent to which they’re receptive to these methods. They begin to see the power of these methods, how effective they can be for achieving the goals they have for the interrogation, and they begin to understand why the methods are so effective. By the fourth or fifth day, by the time they’re actually using them, their faces have lit up and they’re just really excited to have learned this. The one critique that we get about the training is that they didn’t think a week was long enough.

Ultimately, we have to determine the effectiveness of these in practice. We’re collecting transcripts and videotapes that are going to be given to scientists to code. We want to see whether they come out of the training and actually use the methods that are being taught, and if we demonstrate some degree of efficacy.

MN: You’ve sat through numerous interrogations, watched hours of footage. I know you just said five days isn’t enough and now I’m asking you to distill it down more. If you could give interrogators one piece of advice, what might it be?

CM: I think I would say that you should approach an interrogation with an inquisitive mind, and one that is, to the extent possible, devoid of any stereotypes or beliefs about the person that you’re going to be interviewing. The more you can treat them in a respectful way, the more you can humanize them, the more that you can relate to them, the more likely you are to elicit cooperation from them. I really believe that that’s at the heart of a good interrogation—the ability to get somebody talking.