Police questioning techniques make it easy to elicit false accusations


The worst part of the Reid technique is that most of us will (hopefully) agree that it’s not an ethical method of questioning, but we’ll cheer on our favorite TV and movie detectives in its use because within those fictional story worlds we suspend our disbelief that creepy looking guys aren’t always bad guys who “probably did it.”


Further evidence the judicial system - globally and historically going back who knows how far - is extremely faulty. After all, where in the world has it been that cops do not interrogate in these ways.

Reliance on witnesses for evidence is ancient. Yay for modern dna and other hard forensic sciences.

I am a little skeptical, however, that this study accurately duplicated real world constraints. It is one thing to be in a real police interrogation room where the concept of real world consequences is very palpable, as opposed to somehow rigging up an artificial environment with that same level of seriousness.

Falsely accusing someone when you know there will be no ramifications for them just to get an annoying researcher off your back is very, very different from falsely accusing someone to potentially get them long jail sentences or execution.


It seems that they’re weren’t aware of what the study was about and were led to believe an actual theft had happened. What’s the source of your skepticism?


The source of my skepticism, well I express skepticism there on two different matters: one, on the judicial system where witnesses are relied on (which pretty well means the historical judicial system post-70s or thereabouts; and, two, on the rigors of replicating a real environment and how difficult this would be to achieve, yet the likely importance of it.

The later point, the skepticism is from acknowledging the critical factor of context in a security interview. I suppose most work in that regards which is likely printed out there probably would be in the area of lie detector tests. A critical factor in such a test is that the context is rigorously set up. Suspense, the importance of the situation… are important factors. Otherwise, just as having to sometimes deal as a security bureaucrat, I am painfully aware of the difficulty of getting someone to do something when I have the capacity to force them to do so versus when I do not have that capacity. And, having experience dealing in a variety of settings with security interviews with a variety of levels of authorities, I am acquainted with how much difference there is in seriousness between these levels of authority.

The former point, there has been a wealth of material in terms of the poor capacity of eyewitnesses, especially in this past decade. So I doubt you are referring to that. I am a huge fan of modern forensics, it has deeply improved the accuracy of the judicial system. (As crap as some of the laws and sentencing might remain is another matter.)

It’s very easy to get somebody to believe the opposite of what they know to be true: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-k5J4RxQdE

My experiences with doing incident response in IT security is:

  • If I don't do it within an hour or so, it is not accurate.
  • If I ask the questions in the wrong order, it isn't accurate.
  • If I don't write it down as soon as possible, it isn't accurate.
You have to ask:
  1. What did you see or hear first? (Write it down.)
  2. What did you see or hear next? (Write it down.)
  3. Repeat.
Every time somebody asks: "What happened?" your chances of accurately determining what was actually seen or heard, drops in half. Every time somebody tries to explain what happened, your chances of accurately determining what was actually seen or heard drops in half again.

It doesn’t matter if it is me or anybody else. I have never met an observer that can accurately remember an event in the past if he doesn’t carefully write down what he observes shortly after it occurs.

And, when I review old incidents where I have carefully recorded them, my memories are always different than the record.

When I watch TV, I have no idea what they are doing when they question witnesses. It doesn’t seem possible to discover reality using those methods.


Cognitive behavioral science has some great stuff out lately, though I did not go into because this site nearly daily posts stuff on that. The “purple gorilla” team wrote a very good book on their surprising findings, but there are a few out there.

One major reason a lot of study is probably recently taking such hold on people is because of the extraordinary advances in DNA evidence… and organizations at work pushing re-investigations which have cleared quite a number of innocent people who were previously incarcerated.

One side effect of this has been other organizations popping up investigating these cases and how these innocent people were locked away in the first place, which is at least some times through first hand witnesses, even including actual victims.

I suppose, for me, some of the more fascinating findings deal with our amazing “change blindness”: a person can literally be switched out with someone else and, if a stranger, anyway, people very often will not notice.

If your cup of water you have to spit out because it is suddenly wine, you are going to come to one singular conclusion: I must have been mistaken, this must have always been wine. Regardless of how impossible that might be.

There are also severe memory problems which can encouraged by pressures from prosecutors. And juries will be biased towards some witnesses over others based on a variety of factors, but one is simply it depends on how confident they present their evidence. Someone who is very confident giving false information (intentional or not) is much more likely to be believed then someone who is not so confident giving true information.


Given this, its important (not just for your physical liberty, but for your mental liberty from false memories of a crime) to always ask for a lawyer when being detained by police.

I haven’t read the article, so I’m likely way out in left field here, but i wonder how successful this could be in a court room setting, in terms of getting a witness to doubt/recant their own testimony while on the stand.

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It seems significantly more impossible for water to suddenly change into wine in my mouth than for me to misremember wine as water.

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Though you may be surprised at how often you say one thing, intending to say something for one rather mundane reason… and afterwards realize you said something that probably really meant something else, even something profound, or at the very least, for a reason you realize was very distinct from what you were thinking you meant at the time.

The actual main study, or at least, probably the most remarkable one was when they tried having one person go up and ask directions from someone on the street. During the conversation, they had some people walk by carrying a large mirror. While these people walked between the two, they changed out the person asking for directions entirely. Afterwards, they interviewed the subjects of the test, and almost invariably they did not notice they were talking to entirely different people at all.

But there have been, so far, a number of such studies, including some that are probably available via online video.

Related to these studies showing how symptomatic and profound human beings are afflicted to “change blindness”, are how, in general, how we “complete the picture”… and, in general, are extremely bad with anything whatsoever improbably or incongruent with our expectations.

Never even mind that it might be pointed out that ‘there actually is no truth, because people believe what they want to based on their own preferences’.

This is just as true with those who consider themselves skeptical, generally intelligent, objective individuals… as with those who make no claims to their own subjectivity or understanding of anything at all.


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