Improving memory recall: The benefits of cognitive interviewing techniques
These methods offer a more effective approach for police officers when interacting with victims of trauma
- What happened?
- Who did it?
- Where are they now?
These are typical questions police officers and investigators want answered, but all too often, officers attempt to rush and control an interview by asking close-ended questions. This drive for expediency can unintentionally reinforce a victim’s sense of inadequacy, frustrate and confuse them, and give them the perception they are not believed. This can even lead to re-victimization.
Research shows that stress and fear can cause memory alterations and limitations.  The relationship between stress, trauma and memory is complex. When individuals experience trauma, the stress hormones in their bodies can lead to unexpected reactions and behaviors. It’s a common misconception that memories of traumatic events are always remembered in a clear, linear fashion. Instead, these memories can be fragmented and recalled sporadically.
What the science says
Neuroscience research reveals that during traumatic situations, the brain focuses on survival, which often means paying attention to immediate threats, like a weapon, while ignoring other details. This reaction to fear and stress can affect how memories are stored and later recalled.
Stress hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol create reactions, behaviors and memory limitations that are surprising to most. [2,3] For example, if subjected to a traumatic, potentially life-altering event, most people believe they would fight back. However, some are so fear-stricken that tonic immobility (unable to move) or dissociation may overtake them – seen as counterintuitive behavior to most of us.
Further, complicating matters is that neuroscience research has shown memory subjected to a traumatic experience is fragmented and not recalled in a linear way. [4,5] Unfortunately, for an untrained first responder, these memory irregularities are chalked up as deceptive.
Victims of rape are often able to recall the texture of a rapist’s shirt before being able to remember if the suspect was wearing a hat, which is a profound illustration of memory limitations during a traumatic event.  Recalling one’s memory in an orderly way from start to finish is difficult and typically unattainable as victims and witnesses often have starts and stops with fragmented images.  Police may ask a victim about an assailant’s face, when he or she was focused primarily on the weapon, which can lead to frustration. . Additionally, peripheral details such as the assailant’s face may not have received the same attention because the fear circuitry did not see it as a need for survival, also known as perceptual narrowing.  This is a well-studied phenomenon in officer-involved shootings where officers may experience the “weapon focus effect” and auditory exclusion, or tunnel vision where the victim focuses on one of the five senses at the exclusion of others.  This lack of clarity for these details may frustrate investigators and is often seen as a lack of credibility or worse – deception [3,7]
The value of cognitive interviewing techniques
Cognitive interviewing techniques offer a more effective approach for police officers when interacting with victims of trauma. These methods encourage victims to share their experiences at their own pace. Using open-ended questions like “Tell me more,” “Help me understand,” or “What are you able to tell me about your experience?” can create a comfortable space for victims to share their stories.
Exploring sensory details can also help with recalling memories. For instance, asking about what they heard or smelled during the event can trigger memory recall. Providing victims with choices and explaining processes can help them regain a sense of control, which is crucial as it can prevent further traumatization.
To avoid frustrating the victim, we should initially avoid asking close-ended questions as memory is highly malleable and prone to being edited – especially under stress and fear, common in life-altering and traumatic events. [3,5] When people are in a highly traumatized state, our fight or flight responses kick in, and parts of our feeling brain (such as the amygdala) kick into high gear, and our thinking brain (including the prefrontal cortex) is decreased, inhibiting our ability to accurately recall memories. [2,3,5]
Victims and witnesses encode details that investigators might not feel are central to the investigation such as the description of a car seat, or tablecloth but ignore other details such as a vital time sequence, or what a perpetrator may have said, or the color of his shirt. [3, 8] However, these other peripheral memories might be consolidated in their fear circuitry and can be compelling evidence if investigators are able to effectively pull it out. Using cognitive interviewing techniques to retrieve those details by reinstating the context may assist in better memory recall.
Retrieval cues are stimuli that can help a victim remember details more clearly. The power of retrieval cues is evident in a song that immediately brings us back to a moment or the power of the smell of our mother’s cooking or even the smell associated with a life-altering event such as an automobile crash. For law enforcement investigators, reinstating the context of a victim’s trauma is extremely important, while coupled with obtaining powerful and relevant retrieval cues – aided by asking questions about sensory details such as sounds and smells. [1,9] By allowing the interviewee to describe the detail as it is encoded, i.e., “person reminds them of…” or “taller than me” or by facilitating picture drawing, investigators are often able to gather implicit memories not commonly known to the victim. 
The application of cognitive interviewing in law enforcement
These interviewing techniques can also be applied to police officers involved in critical incidents. For instance, waiting for a period of 48 hours or two sleep cycles before conducting interviews can help with memory consolidation.  Additionally, bringing officers back to the scene can trigger more detailed recollections.
Trust and rapport are fundamental in interviewing victims. An empathetic approach not only aids in better memory recall but also preserves the dignity and respect of the victim. There’s an ethical aspect to this: treating individuals with care and respect is vital.
Moving from traditional to more trauma-informed interviewing techniques requires time, patience and understanding, but the potential benefits in terms of information gathering, victim well-being and overall improved legitimacy are substantial.
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2. Gagnon SA, Wagner AD. Acute stress and episodic memory retrieval: neurobiological mechanisms and behavioral consequences. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016;1369(1):55-75.
3. Lisak D, Hopper J. Why Rape & Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories. TIME. Published December 9, 2014.
4. Bedard-Gilligan M, Zoellner LA. Dissociation and memory fragmentation in post-traumatic stress disorder: An evaluation of the dissociative encoding hypothesis. Memory. 2012;20(3):277-299.
5. Lisak D. The neurobiology of trauma. Unpublished.
6. Campbell R. Interview with Dr. Rebecca Campbell on the Neurobiology of Sexual Assault (2 of 3). National Institute of Justice.
7. Archambault J, Lonsway K. Incomplete, Inconsistent, and Untrue statements Made by Victims. End Violence Against Women International.
8. Levine LJ, Edelstein RS. (2009). Emotion and memory narrowing: A review and goal-relevance approach. Cognition and Emotion, 23(5):833-875.
9. Strand R. The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI). Army Military Police School. Unpublished.
10. High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. Interrogation: A review of the science. Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2016.
11. Lewinsky W. Force Science Institute. Force Science News #254: Force Science Institute details reasons for delaying interviews with OIS survivors. 2014.