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The Cognitive Interview

By Saul McLeod, updated


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 & Geiselman, 1992).

The cognitive interview (CI) is a questioning technique used by the police to enhance retrieval of information about a crime scene from the eyewitnesses and victim's memory. The following four basic principles are used: mental reinstatement; report everything; change order; and change perspective.

Because our memories are made up of a network of associations rather than discrete and unconnected events, there are a number of ways that these memories can be accessed. The cognitive interview exploits this by using multiple retrieval strategies.

The cognitive interview involves a number of techniques/mnemonics:

Mental Reinstatement of Environmental and Personal Contexts

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.

In the interview, witnesses are often asked to use all of their 5 senses in their recollection of the event. This can help in recreating the event clearly in their mind and may trigger the recall of context dependent memories.

Reporting the Event from Different Perspectives

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

Describing the Event in Several Orders

Recounting the incident in a different narrative order.  Geiselman and 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.

In-depth Reporting

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, Fisher, MacKinnon, and Holland (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.


Critical Evaluation

One limitation is the cognitive interview is that it's time consuming to conduct and takes much longer than a standard police interview. A rapport must be established and it requires specialist training.

Kebbell and Wagstaff (1999) found many police officers did not use the CI technique in less serious crimes as they did not have the time. The CI may produce a vast amount of information but it may not always be practical or helpful in terms of allocating the police to efficiently investigate incidents.

It is also time consuming to train police officers to use this method. This means that it is unlikely that the 'proper' version of the cognitive interview is used.

Another limitation is that some elements of the cognitive interview may be more valuable than others. For example, research has shown that using a combination of 'report everything' and 'context reinstatement' produced better recall than any of the conditions individually.

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

The cognitive interview is useful when interviewing older witnesses. Wright and Holliday (2007) found that the older the participant, the less complete and accurate the recall but when they used the CI technique, the older participants recalled significantly greater detail without giving any false information.

Therefore, the CI can be used to ensure that all eyewitness testimony is as accurate as possible to avoid a possible age bias on recall.

APA Style References

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

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.

Kebbell, M. R., Milne, R., & Wagstaff, G. F. (1999). The cognitive interview: A survey of its forensic effectiveness. Psychology, crime and law, 5(1-2), 101-115.

Wright, A. M., & Holliday, R. E. (2007). Interviewing cognitively impaired older adults: How useful is a Cognitive Interview?. Memory, 15(1), 17-33.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2019, January 11). Cognitive interview. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-interview.html

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