Intelligence Gathering - Loftus (2011) - Article

  Chapter 

By interviewing many different individuals information can be gathered for intelligence purposes. Not all these individuals want to cooperate though, think of suspects and prisoners. But information can also be gathered from other individuals. While getting information, investigators need to be aware of memory distortion and interrogation influences. Also they need to be able to detect deception.

Interviews and interrogations

At the end of the nineties a distinction was made between interviews and interrogations. Interviews are usually nonaccusatory. The investigator needs to evaluate the accuracy and completeness of the stories. Interrogations are more coercive and can use strategies such as confrontation and minimization. Here, the investigator needs to be aware not to lead to false confessions or erroneous inferences about lying and truth telling.

Three important areas of research that can help maximize the accurate information and minimize inaccurate information are memory distortion, false confessions, and detecting deception.

Memory distortion

Many times after people have already experienced an event they are exposed to new information afterwards. This information can supplement or alter their memory, leading to errors in accurately trying to report what happened. Typical experiments have shown that misinformation can cause very large deficits in memory, such as seeing non-existing items and recalling incorrect details.

Some important questions, such as when people are especially prone to being influenced by misinformation, and if we are all susceptible to misinformation, can be answered much better based upon recent research.

Factors that influence the power of misinformation

  • People are more vulnerable to the influence of misinformation as time passes. The more time there is between the event and the misinformation, the higher the chance that the misinformation will be incorporated into the memory.

  • Also important is the method by which the misinformation is delivered. People are more likely to pick up the information if they get it from another person.

  • Young children and elderly are more susceptible to misinformation.

  • People with dissociative experiences are more susceptible to misinformation, because they distrust their own memories.

The cognitive interview

The cognitive interview was developed in the mid-eighties. It incorporates different techniques derived from basic principles of cognitive and social psychology, and it is supposed to help getting better information about past experiences. This type of interview can bring out a lot more information than more conventional strategies.

To keep in mind during an interview or interrogation

People are constantly exposed to new information after the event has passed. The researcher should look for instances in which this exposure may have influenced the individual’s memory. Especially when the individual doesn’t have a good memory of the event, it is important to remember that that person is more susceptible to misinformation.

If a person makes a claim it is important to explore possible sources of suggestion. Think of the media, films, interrogations, and even self-generated misinformation.

Another important point to keep in mind is that confidence is irrelevant. Even if a person is very detailed and absolutely sure of his story, this does not make it true.

Finally, it is important to be aware of a useful manual for training police on how to gather information.

False confessions

One paradigm to investigate false confessions is the cheating paradigm. Here, the participants are accused of giving help to another person who is solving a problem, after a clear instruction that the two must not work together. Many participants eventually confess falsely. Another paradigm to study false confessions used tampered video evidence to make people admit to an act they didn’t commit.

There are many different reasons as to why someone would confess to something they didn’t do. Some people confess for attention, or to protect someone. Also, bluffing can increase the likelihood of a false confession. In a coerced-compliant false confession, a person confesses even though they know that they didn’t do it, but they think it will lead to less negative outcomes than not confessing. In a coerced-internalized false confession a person confesses after false evidence is supplied (like saying someone failed the polygraph).

Vulnerable groups

Especially children, juveniles, and the mentally challenged are vulnerable to making false confessions.


One important paper suggested that all interrogations should be videotaped. This way, potential suggestion or coercion can be documented.


There are several misconceptions when it comes to false confessions. Such as that false confessions do not happen that often, that only vulnerable people falsely confess, that the study of police interrogation is still at its beginning, and that suspects are sufficiently protected by their rights.

How to verify a confession

Confessions should always be verified. There are several things that can be done to contribute to this verification. First of all, the conditions under which the report was made have to be reported (e.g. was there coercion?). Secondly, the details in the confession need to be compared to what is known about the event. The confession is more valuable if the person has details that only he could have known and that have not been reported in another place. Finally, it needs to be investigated if there were conditions that could have made the person falsely confess (e.g. fatigue, isolation, false evidence).

Detecting deception

Results from experimental studies have shown that many people can tell an untrue story without showing any obvious clues that they are lying, such as gaze aversion or fidgeting. This popular belief can have very negative consequences for cultural and ethnic groups that engage more in gaze aversion in their everyday lives.


Several strategies can be used to detect deception:

  • By using a particular interviewing approach, such as the information-gathering style of interviewing, witnesses are asked open-ended questions. The focus is on gathering information, and not on accusing the witness. This is a very good approach, because it gives the investigator a lot of information which can be compared to the other data.

  • Another good approach is to ask unexpected questions, such as “Who finished their dinner first?”. Liars will more often come up with an answer, because they fear that if they do not know the answer, they look guilty.

  • Withholding event facts from a suspect can be used to trap the suspect in inconsistencies (e.g. not telling the suspect you found his fingerprints, until after he admitted to never have been at the crime scene).

  • Increasing the intensity of the interview can make lying more difficult, because lying takes a lot of cognitive effort.


It has become public that often coercive interrogation techniques are used on individuals that are being suspected of terrorism. These are sometimes called enhanced interrogation techniques, and include the repeated induction of shock, stress, anxiety, and torture. However, there is a lack of evidence that these methods actually work and reveal information that otherwise would not have been revealed. Also, they may just do the opposite of what they are intended to do.

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