The magazine for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at
Iowa State University
Chris Meissner poses in front of bookshelves.
Chris Meissner poses in front of bookshelves.

Infusing science into law enforcement

You are in the hot seat.

The police found you in the vicinity of an apartment robbery, and now you are being questioned. An interviewer asks you endless questions for hours.

They tell you they have evidence that you were at the scene of the crime. They express great confidence in your guilt, leading you to believe there is no way out of this situation. But then they imply leniency in exchange for your cooperation. They suggest a story that minimizes your involvement in the crime. What do you say?

According to Dr. Chris Meissner, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, the interviewer may have as much control over what you say next as you do.

Meissner is an expert in applied cognition in the area of forensic science. In addition to teaching and conducting his research at Iowa State, for the past six years he has conducted research and developed science-based training in support of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG). The HIG was established by an executive order from President Obama, and the organization integrates scientists with intelligence professionals from the FBI, CIA and U.S. Department of Defense.

The mission of the HIG is threefold. First, the group is responsible for all “high-value” interrogations for the U.S. government. This would include high-profile cases with potentially high-risk suspects. Second, the HIG funds research to identify evidence-based practices and techniques that are most effective at eliciting information from individuals. Third, the HIG is responsible for coordinating science-based training of all interrogation professionals across the U.S. government.

For Meissner, the mission means offering evidence-based research to the professional community that will allow investigators to ethically elicit as much true information from subjects as possible. But that means translating science into practice – something practitioners have never had access to before.

Art meets science

Practices in use today are largely based upon techniques developed by practitioners, but never subjected to scientific scrutiny. The U.S. government last invested in interrogation research in the 1950s.

Over several decades, techniques and tactics have been honed as an art, and passed on or trained based on implied success. However, success has traditionally been defined as securing a confession, or “breaking” a suspect. Meissner points out that if an interrogation’s end goal is a confession or confirmation of guilty knowledge, the interviewer has already determined the desired answers. A more valuable interview, according to Meissner, is one where an interrogator establishes rapport with the subject, helps them remember more details, and implores them to share a large amount of information on their own accord.

Meissner points out that if an interrogation’s end goal is a confession or confirmation of guilty knowledge, the interviewer has already determined the desired answers.

“Breaking a suspect suggests that there is some point where you can take a human and flip a switch,” Meissner said. “It’s not flipping a switch – it’s a process of developing a relationship, of engaging with them, humanizing them, and listening.”

Meissner says traditional practices of breaking a suspect can be very powerful, but lack precision. A relentless interrogator can potentially wear down a suspect, until they see no “way out” other than providing the information the interrogator wants to hear. Unfortunately, this can lead people to volunteer incorrect information or even generate false memories of committing a crime.

The new science-based model that Meissner and his colleagues are developing is built on helping a subject recall and relay as much accurate information as possible. Cognitive psychology is at the very core of this approach, along with active listening skills and developing rapport. In many of the cases studied, an interview based in principles of cognition and memory can double the amount of information gathered, with very few errors.

Rapport is key. “Think of it this way,” Meissner said. “Your challenge is to get a highly resistant source to share their deepest, darkest secret. Consider the conditions under which you might share your secrets.”

Meissner explains that people develop rapport with others who we see as similar to ourselves – common beliefs, experiences, and preferences. After carefully listening, interviewers can talk about things they have in common with subjects and begin to establish mutual respect, which often leads to rapport.

“Your challenge is to get a highly resistant source to share their deepest, darkest secret. Consider the conditions under which you might share your secrets.”

Interviewers can also employ the principle of reciprocity. Consider the human reaction when someone gives you a gift. You are likely psychologically burdened with the responsibility to offer them a gift in return. That type of implied expectation can be used as leverage in eliciting information.

Further, people are more likely to interact with others they perceive as warm and competent – those who seem approachable, genuine, and honest. Meissner’s research suggests that individuals can be primed with concepts such as openness and warmth (via objects in the room or the non-verbal behaviors of the interviewer), leading them to provide more guilty knowledge. Unfortunately, interrogation rooms are often set up to prime the concepts of cold, isolation, and rigidity – yielding the opposite of the desired behaviors from a suspect.

One of the most difficult tactics in effective interviewing is listening. Traditional interrogation techniques involve the interviewer doing most of the talking. Meissner says a funnel approach, beginning with broad, open-ended questions and utilizing adaptive, active listening techniques, is more effective. Non-verbal cues, like leaning in, smiling or nodding, can encourage the flow of information and lead to more effective recall.

Science meets practice

In 2015 Meissner collaborated with U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations to train these science-based tactics of interrogation to 120 investigators. Initial data shows that investigators are using the science-based tactics and that these tactics are increasing cooperation and information elicitation in real cases.

“It’s so rewarding to hear from professionals that they both welcome the new, evidence-based techniques and that they are experiencing success with them,” Meissner said.

In addition to providing professionals with scientifically proven tools, Meissner’s research helps the U.S. government create standards. He has briefed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and members of Congress, in addition to providing scientific expertise to other federal, state, and regional agencies. The recent U.S. Defense Authorization Act contains an amendment that prohibits torture, and it also requires the HIG to prepare an annual report for Congress on the state of the science. In turn the federal government is required to update the U.S. Army Field Manual every three years to reflect best practices.

“It’s a great opportunity for social scientists to inform practice at all levels, and provide ethical, legal, and effective approaches to interviewing, which reduces the likelihood of false information and eliminates the need for coercion,” Meissner said.

In one instance, a major law enforcement agency gained so much information using the new interview strategies that they exonerated their subject. “These practices are not only for finding someone guilty. They are also quite effective at exonerating the innocent," Meissner said. "And this speaks well of exactly what our law enforcement want – to distinguish the innocent from the guilty.”