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Cognitive Interview


In 1991, a Miami woman walking through the lobby of an office building casually noticed two men standing together.

Several minutes after her departure, the men murdered a person working in the building.  Police investigators determined that the woman was the only person who had observed the two suspects and could possibly describe them.  In an initial standard interview with police, her memory of the men proved disappointingly sketchy.

Police brought in psychologist Ronald Fisher to help the witness remember more detail.  Fisher's interview consisted of a series of memory-enhancing strategies which produced a breakthrough in the case:

The woman reported a clear image of one of the suspects as he brushed the hair from in front of his eyes. She then recalled several details about his profile, including his having worn a silver earring.

Cognitive Interview Technique

Findings concerning the unreliability of eye-witness accounts have led researchers to attempt to devise methods for improving retrieval.  One of these methods is the cognitive interview (Fisher and Geiselman, 1992).

The Cognitive Interview technique is a questioning technique used by the police to enhance retrieval of information from the witnesses memory.

The cognitive interview involves a number of techniques:

  • The interviewer tries to mentally reinstate the environmental and personal context of the crime for the witnesses, perhaps by asking them about their general activities and feelings on the day.  This could include sights, sounds, feelings and emotions, the weather etc.

  • Witnesses are asked to report the incident from different perspective, describing what they think other witnesses (or even the criminals themselves) might have seen.

  • Recounting the incident in a different narrative order.  Geiselman & Fisher proposed that due to the recency effect, people tend to recall more recent events more clearly than others. Witnesses should be encouraged to work backwards from the end to the beginning.

  • Witnesses are asked to report every detail, even if they think that detail is trivial. In this way, apparently unimportant detail might act as a trigger for key information about the event.

It is believed that the change of narrative order and change of perceptive techniques aid recall because they reduce witness’ use of prior knowledge, expectations or schema.

A psychology laboratory experiment conducted by Geiselman et al. (1985) compared the cognitive interview with a standard police interview and hypnosis.

Geiselman et al. (1985)

Aim: Geiselman (1985) set out to investigate the effectiveness of the cognitive interview.

Method: Participants viewed a film of a violent crime and, after 48 hours, were interviewed by a policeman using one of three methods: the cognitive interview; a standard interview used by the Los Angeles Police; or an interview using hypnosis. The number of facts accurately recalled and the number of errors made were recorded.

Results: The average number of correctly recalled facts for the cognitive interview was 41.2, for hypnosis it was 38.0 and for the standard interview it was 29.4.  There was no significant difference in the number of errors in each condition.

Conclusion: The cognitive interview leads to better memory for events, with witnesses able to recall more relevant information compared with a traditional interview method.

Cognitive Interview Video

Karen Matthews (Shannon’s mum) was arrested for abducting her own daughter. Although we know that Karen wasn’t the witness watch this clip to see the techniques used to elicit information from Karen.


Geiselman, R. E., Fisher, R. P., MacKinnon, D. P., & Holland, H. L. (1985). Eyewitness memory enhancement in the police interview: Cognitive retrieval mnemonics versus hypnosis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 70[2], 401-412.

Fisher, R. P., & Geiselman, R. E. (1992). Memory enhancing techniques for investigative interviewing: The cognitive interview. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2010). Cognitive interview. Retrieved from

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