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What is a Cognitive Interview?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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A cognitive interview is a specific type of interview that attempts to elicit a more vivid and accurate memory of a particular event. This method is often used in police interviews of a witness to a crime and is intended as a way to help that witness remember what happened in a more accurate way. There are a number of different techniques that can be used during this type of interview.

The idea of the cognitive interview came about largely due to research and study by psychologists into human memory, especially how memory can be most accurately recalled. Early theories that human memory was similar to a camera, recording events for accurate recall later, were largely disproven by research that indicates people inadvertently alter their memories due to emotions and personal opinions or beliefs. While someone may believe he or she is accurately recalling a particular memory, strong emotions and personal bias can often alter how well a memory is actually recalled. A cognitive interview uses a number of different methods to help an interviewer get more accurate recall of memories from an interviewee.

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While different interviewers can take somewhat different approaches to a cognitive interview, there are a few procedures that are often used during this type of interview. The cognitive interview will typically begin with the interviewer asking the witness to try to put himself or herself back into the moment he or she is trying to remember. The witness will often be asked to close his or her eyes to block out other stimuli and focus on the memories. Open questions, those without a “yes” or “no” answer, are asked and the interviewer will typically not interrupt the flow of a witness’s answer, letting him or her remember an event more organically.

The witness in a cognitive interview will often be asked to remember events as they happened from start to finish. Once this is reported, the interviewee may then ask the witness to report the events as they occurred in reverse order, or to start in the middle and recall the events going forward or backward. This can help a witness recall details that may have otherwise been lost or overlooked by forcing him or her to recall them in an unusual way.

A cognitive interview will often end with the witness then being asked to describe the events from the perspective of someone else. This can help remove personal biases or emotions, and help the witness focus on the events in an impartial way. The interviewer will often ask questions seeking to elicit details that have common elements connecting them, such as humorous events, as well as questions that would use multiple senses, including smell and touch, as these can trigger stronger, more diverse memories.

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