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Le travail humain

2001/2 (Vol. 64)

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Article précédent Pages 173 - 191



Testimonies are an important part of the legal process, at two main levels: They can not only contribute to resolving a police inquiry by providing investigators with vital information about the criminal event, but also provide judges and juries with evidence that will influence their decisions about the guilt of an accused person (Loftus, 1975).


Despite these important facts, those responsible for obtaining testimonies (police officers, examining magistrates, etc.) are not routinely trained to conduct interviews and often have no knowledge of inter- viewing techniques that might optimize the retrieval of information from a witness or a victim (Fisher, Geiselman, & Raymond, 1987; Ginet, Py, Joguet-Recordon, & Gendre, 1998; Memon, Holley, Milne, Köhnken, & Bull, 1994). In an attempt to solve this problem, an American research team came up with a realistic interview technique in 1984: the Cognitive Interview (Geiselman, Fisher, Firstenberg, Hutton, Sullivan, Avetissian, & Prosk, 1984).


The Cognitive Interview requires giving four instructions that the witness is asked to follow throughout the interview.

  • 1 / Return to both the environmental and the emotional context of the scene of the crime (mental reinstatement of context).

  • 2 / Recall the maximum amount of information, even if it appears to have little relevance or is accorded a lower level of confidence (hypermnesia).

  • 3 / Recount the scene in a different chronological order, for example, from the end to the beginning (change of narrative order).

  • 4 / Recount the scene from a different perspective, for example, by telling it from the point of view of another person who was involved (change of perspective).


The first two instructions were drawn mainly from Tulving’s model of encoding specificity (1983) and the idea of bringing the context to bear. In particular, they make use of the principle that information is more likely to be recalled if the circumstances in which the retrieval takes place are similar to those present during encoding, especially when it comes to contextual elements (the witness’s physical environment and mood). In support of this hypothesis, much research has shown that simply putting the participant back in the encoding context during an experiment enhances performance, irrespective of the environmental setting (Godden & Baddeley, 1975), the internal context such as mood (Bower, Gilligan, & Monteiro, 1981; Teasdale & Fogarty, 1979), or the person’s emotional (Macht, Spear, & Levis, 1977) or psychophysiological state (Eich, Weingartner, Stillman, & Gillin, 1975; Goodwin, Powell, Bremer, Hoine, & Stern, 1969). A comparable level of success has also been demonstrated using both mental and physical reinstatement of context (Malpass & Devine, 1981; Smith, 1979).


The instruction to return to the original context is aimed at putting the witness’s mind back into contextual conditions that are as close as possible to those prevailing at the moment of the event. In addition to having a beneficial effect on the interviewee’s memory, mental recontextualization offers obvious practical benefits over physical recontextualization [2]   It should be noted that « reconstruction », which... [2] : Returning to the actual scene takes more time and can prove counterproductive if the environment has changed since the event.


The hypermnesia instruction is designed to also assist in the recovery of the encoding and retrieval contexts. Details of minor importance tend to act as powerful retrieval cues which allow interviewees to gain access to their memories with greater ease. The hypermnesia instruction has the additional advantage of preventing witnesses from failing to report details which they think might be irrelevant but which could prove to be highly important within the framework of the inquiry. (Witnesses are not qualified to judge what may or may be not be pertinent from a legal point of view.) In short, this instruction forces interviewees to lower their degree of self-confidence. Given that it has not been possible to establish a relationship between confidence and accuracy (Bertone, Mélen, Py, & Somat, 1995; Wells & Murray, 1984), the fact of compelling interviewees to provide information which is accorded a lower level of confidence does not usually result in an increase in errors. Moreover, when they are not sure of a certain point, witnesses spontaneously mention this fact.


The last two instructions are based on another concept: the script (Schank & Abelson, 1977). The instructions to change the order and perspective are designed to make use of certain effects brought about by the influence of script-based knowledge on recall. More precisely, the order-change instruction deactivates the script initiated by the critical event by removing the retrieval cue of sequentiality (Bekerian & Bower, 1983). In this case, the witness should no longer be able to make use of this type of knowledge to retrieve information from memory. Details that are inconsistent with the script should thus be rendered more accessible, and consistent information not contained in the scene itself should be less easily evoked in error (logical inferences, confabulations). These hypotheses were confirmed in an experiment carried out by Geiselman and Callot (1990). Another advantage of the change-of-order instruction is that it makes use of recency effects (Whitten & Leonard, 1981). The most recent details, that is, those the witness is asked to recall first if the instructions are followed, are the easiest to remember. These details may therefore function as retrieval cues and enhance the recall of chronologically recent information, which in turn, functions as a cue and facilitates the recall of earlier details, and so on. Through a sort of “snowball effect”, overall recall should improve.


The perspective-change instruction leads witnesses to activate other scripts or schemas spontaneously associated with the scene (Anderson & Pichert, 1978). This should help them recall details that are consistent with the newly adopted point of view (and which could correspond to elements that are inconsistent with the initial script and were not remembered spontaneously).


Since 1984, cognitive interviewing has been studied in about fifty experiments and has proven to be a very effective technique. By effective, we mean that a significant increase in the quantity of correct information remembered by the witness is achieved without a comparable increase in the number of errors, or at least, without any deterioration in the accuracy level of the testimonies.


Cognitive interviews seem to work equally well on ordinary adults (Aschermann, Mantwill, & Köhnken, 1991; Geiselman et al., 1984; Geiselman, Fisher, MacKinnon, & Holland, 1986) as on specific populations with memory deficiencies and greater suggestibility, such as children (Geiselman & Padilla, 1988; McCauley & Fisher, 1995; Memon, Wark, Holley, Bull, & Köhnken, 1996; Saywitz, Geiselman, & Bornstein, 1992), the elderly (Mello & Fisher, 1996), and the mentally handicapped (Brown & Geiselman, 1990; Milne, Clare, & Bull, 1999).


Although this interview technique was shown to be immediately effective in the laboratory, it was not tested for use in the field by the concerned investigators (mostly police officers). The first experiments carried out in collaboration with law-enforcement officials showed that the technique did not present any major difficulties as far as its application was concerned (i.e., the training period was short, the instructions were well applied by the investigators, little increase was observed in the length of the interviews, etc.), and that it could be used on a population of witnesses of a variety of socioeconomic groups and ages (Geiselman, Fisher, MacKinnon, & Holland, 1985; Geiselman, Fisher, MacKinnon, & Holland, 1986, Experiment 1). Fisher, Geiselman, and Amador (1989) made further progress in validating the technique in the field by undertaking an experiment in a real situation. Sixteen experienced police inspectors from Miami, Florida conducted two interviews on each of 47 witnesses or victims of shoplifting or mugging. Between the two interviews, seven inspectors were trained in theories of memory and in the cognitive interview technique. The other nine officers formed the control group. The researchers measured both the increase in facts elicited in the second interview compared with the first, and the number of facts elicited by the police officers trained in cognitive interviewing in comparison with the performance of officers who had not been trained. The results indicated an overall benefit of the cognitive interview: The trained investigators elicited 47 % more facts relating to matters already examined, whereas the benefit from the second interview proved negligible for the officers who had not been trained in cognitive interviewing.


This study is of considerable practical interest, even if it poses several methodological problems. Indeed, apart from the facts that it is difficult to define “elicited facts” and that we do not have reliable information concerning the accuracy of the testimonies other than the high level of consistency in the information given by different witnesses to the same offence (this was true for half of the cases in the study), the fact that the officers in the control group were not trained may have affected their motivation in ways discovered in early studies of human relations (Mayo, 1945; Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1939). Furthermore, there is no data relating to the investigators’ understanding of the different techniques involved in the cognitive interview and of the possible problems the witnesses might have had in applying the instructions.


This last problem was pointed out in a study by some English and German researchers (Memon et al., 1994) following their failure to replicate the effects of the cognitive interview technique when used by police officers. In their study, 38 police officers with an average of 10 years of job experience participated in a training session that lasted four hours. The entire group was made aware of the general principles of communication, good and bad questioning techniques, and the effects of different question formats (open, closed, leading questions, etc.). Then half of the group was trained in the cognitive interview technique, while the other half studied the principles of communication and the problem of question wording in greater detail. Sample situations were set up in both groups. Immediately after the training session, the police officers were asked to interview witnesses of a staged event (a simulated armed robbery in the parking lot of the police training school a few hours earlier). The results did not indicate any benefits of cognitive interviewing over standard interviewing as far as the quantity of correct information remembered by the witnesses was concerned. There was also no difference between the two groups in the number of errors and confabulations. Moreover, it appeared as though the cognitive interview training had little effect on the interview procedures used by the police officers: There was no difference between the two groups with respect to the number and type of questions asked (interviews remained largely unstructured and dominated by short, closed questions asked abruptly and at a rapid pace), and the cognitive interview instructions were infrequently used. Furthermore, for the most part, the techniques were not really presented by the investigators in such a way that the witnesses could understand what was expected of them. These results run counter to those obtained by Fisher et al. (1989) and led the English-German team to conclude that their attempt to implement cognitive interview techniques in the field had failed.


The study reported in the present article was aimed at field testing a French version of the cognitive interview. This version puts particular emphasis on the use of free recall by the witness, and on the separation of the different cognitive interview instructions. The witness performs an initial free recall while applying the hypermnesia and reinstatement-of-context instructions. This is followed by a second free recall while applying the change-of-order instruction, and a final recall while applying the change-of-perspective instruction (Ginet, 1998; Ginet & Py, 1996; Py, Ginet, Desperies, & Cathey, 1997). Free recall has the advantage of being rich in information; it also limits the amount of influence the investigator has on the interviewee (Fisher et al., 1987). Bear in mind, however, that strictly speaking, this study is not an experiment in an actual situation, in the sense that it was initially necessary a) to establish minimal control conditions for factors that could affect recall independently of the effect of the cognitive interview (encoding conditions, violence of the event, duration of the detention period, etc.), and above all b) to use measures likely to precisely assess the effectiveness of the technique. In particular, in order to overcome the limitations of Fisher et al.’s (1989) study, it had to be possible to gauge the veracity of the remarks made by the witnesses. This entailed working with a critical event that could be assessed (in this case, films) and a population that was not directly involved in the event (students).


The study had several objectives: 1 / Determine how easily cognitive interviewing techniques were assimilated by investigators trained for only a short period of time. 2 / Assess its suitability in the field while keeping in mind the requirements of day-to-day operations in a police station (limited time and space, etc.). 3 / Assess the effectiveness of the cognitive interview not only through complete testimonies (all information that became apparent in the course of the interview), but also through the written record of the witness’s statement. This last point seemed particularly important from a practical standpoint, since according to Napoleonic law in France, the interview write-up is the only record of the witness’s version of the events made available to the attorney and judge. There is no guarantee that the benefits brought about by the use of the cognitive interview will necessarily be transferred to the witness’s statement. In fact, this written record necessarily involves a certain amount of amendment, interpretation, and memorization on the part of the investigator, and this alone could negate the benefits brought about by cognitive interviewing (oversights, distortions, and condensation of the witness’s account).


In this study, three types of interview procedures were compared: 1 / standard interview procedures usually practiced by police officers; 2 / procedures commonly used by investigators who are aware of the techniques and pitfalls of interactive interviewing, including the importance of free recall, zeroing-in, question wording, etc., which is an improvement over the standard police interview (hereafter called structured interview); and 3/ the cognitive interview. The first two conditions were designed to enable comparison with the cognitive interview on a group in which the only difference would reside in the way in which the instructions were applied and to control potential motivational factors related to participation in a training session.


It was predicted that the cognitive interview would lead to a significant increase in the amount of correct information compared with a standard interview or a structured interview, without a concomitant rise in errors or confabulations. This benefit should be apparent both for the information provided in the course of the interview and for that produced in the written record of the witness’s testimony.




The experiment was run three phases. For the first phase, the police officers interviewed 14 students at the police station, following their usual procedures. Seven days earlier, the participants had viewed a film at a location on the university campus. For the second phase, half of the police officers were trained in cognitive interviewing, while the other half learned about the techniques and pitfalls of standard interviewing (structured interview). For the third phase, the police officers re-interviewed the students while attempting to apply the advice and techniques learned during training. For each interview, the following factors were assessed: importance granted to free recall, how frequently the instructions were used by the police officers trained in cognitive interviewing, and the quantity and quality of the questions asked. Other measures for the three types of interviews (standard in phase 1, structured and cognitive in phase 3) were the amount of correct information identified in the course of the interview and in the written record of the witness’s testimony, the number of errors and confabulations, and the level of accuracy.



The experiment was held in a police station in a town in France. The persons involved were seven police inspectors, one police superintendent, and forty-three first- and second-year psychology students divided randomly into three groups (2 groups of 14 and one group of 15).



The three phases of the experiment were as follows.

II . 3 . A. First Phase: Interviews Before Training


Fourteen students viewed one of the three films used in the study, at a location on the university campus. Each film was in color, lasted 2 to 3 minutes, and presented either a mugging, a sexual attack, or a burglary [3]   Two of the three films were produced under our supervision,... [3] . Each film was seen by 4 or 5 participants. Before viewing the film, the participants were instructed to watch the whole scene very carefully, and to get as involved as possible in the event.


The investigators interviewed the participants seven days later, with the simple instructions to conduct the interviews according to their usual procedures and to conclude with a write-up of the witness’s testimony. They had not seen the filmed scenes, had no knowledge of the number of films used in the study, and were only informed before each interview of the type of event the witness was being questioned about.

II . 3 . B. Second Phase: Training in Cognitive Interviewing Versus Structured Interviewing


In the second phase, the police officers were divided randomly into 2 groups of 4. The first group was trained for two hours in certain techniques related to conducting a structured interview. In particular, the training focused on the importance of free recall, the principal of zeroing-in (proceeding from the general to the specific), questioning that takes account of the witness’s mental state, and the use of potential cues throughout the explanatory comments. The investigators were also made aware of the pitfalls of interviewing: leading questions, negative questions, and the interview pace. This theoretical presentation was followed by several sample situations. Finally, each person was provided with a summary list of the points addressed. The training was aimed at correcting the most common tendencies in police interviews and to provide a basic interviewing framework. The second group was trained for three hours in cognitive interviewing. The basic theory behind this type of interviewing was briefly introduced, and then followed by the theoretical and practical aspects of the four instructions and the results of the principal studies carried out on this subject. Next, each person was presented with a procedure for conducting a cognitive interview. Finally, several sample scenarios were suggested, which also provided the opportunity to tackle the problem of question wording (negative questions and leading questions).

II . 3 . C. Third Phase: Interviews After Training


Twenty-nine other students were interviewed at the police station, each of whom had viewed one of the three films seven days earlier with the same instructions as the standard interview group (9 or 10 participants per film) [4]   Each investigator interviewed at most two witnesses... [4] . Fifteen of these students were interviewed by the group of inspectors trained in cognitive interviewing, who were asked to conduct a complete cognitive interview each time. The other fourteen students were interviewed by the group of inspectors trained in structured interview techniques. These investigators were told to conduct the interviews according to their usual procedures while incorporating the techniques learned during the training session, such as starting with free recall, zeroing-in, and avoiding leading and negative questions.


Each interview was tape-recorded and then fully transcribed. The interviews and written statements were assesses with the help of grids produced for each film that contained all of the items mentioned by the participants and stated whether they were correct, erroneous, or confabulated. In addition, the total number of questions asked and the number of leading questions (questions suggesting something not mentioned by the interviewee) and negative questions (questions formulated negatively and likely to induce a negative response from the witness, as in “Didn’t you see...”) were tallied for each interview, and its total duration was noted.



Before analyzing the impact of the training on the details in the testimonies obtained, it was necessary to assess its effect on the interviewing procedures employed by the police officers, in order to make sure that the advice and techniques in question had been correctly applied.



Several indicators can be used to look at how well the investigators applied the instructions in the structured interviews and the cognitive interviews after training.

III . 1 . A. Importance Accorded to Free Recall


Before training, the investigators only allowed witnesses to talk freely in 3 of the 14 interviews, during 2 of which the person was never interrupted. After training, this figure was as high as 13 in the structured interviews (11 of which were based entirely on free recall). The comparison between the standard and structured interviews proved highly significant as to the number of interviews permitting complete free recall (χ2(1, N = 28) = 11.63, p < .001). For cognitive interviewing, 15 out of 15 interviews relied on free recall (13 of which were based entirely on free recall, with no interruption from the investigator). The comparison between the standard and cognitive interviews also proved to be significant for the number of interviews upholding the principle of complete free recall (χ2(1, N = 29) = 15.19, p < .001). The attention paid by the investigators to one of the basic interviewing principles suggested in this study (in the structured interview and cognitive interview groups) allows us to assume that the training session was effective and that the interviews conducted by the police officers taking part were of a high quality.

III . 1 . B. Application of Cognitive Interviewing Instructions


Generally speaking, and contrary to Memon et al.’s observations, the police investigators applied the cognitive interview instructions very well. In fact, the context was reinstated for the witnesses in all of the interviews conducted with the aid of the cognitive interview technique. However, the investigators did not always leave enough time for the interviewees to mentally put themselves back into the context of the critical event.


Hypermnesia was the instruction used the least by the investigators trained in cognitive interviewing. It was applied in 10 out of 15 interviews, and then only partially: Only the part of the technique encouraging the witness to remember details which seemed unimportant was presented. The investigators seemed reluctant to ask the witnesses to remember details about which they were less confident.


All of the investigators trained in cognitive interviewing applied the change-of-order and change-of-perspective instructions correctly.

III . 1 . C. Number and Wording of Questions


Table 1 presents the results concerning the number and types of questions asked by the investigators in the different conditions. It seems that the interviews carried out as structured interviews did not differ from the standard ones as far as the number of questions asked is concerned (t(26) < 1, n.s.). This is not surprising since the structured interview is really just an improved version of the standard interview; it is not fundamentally different otherwise. In other words, although the police officers who conducted structured interviews initially let the witnesses freely recount the event in question, in accordance with the instructions they had been given, they retained their method of obtaining testimonies, which consisted of interrogating the witness with a predetermined sequence of questions that corresponded to the required content of the write-up. In contrast, interviews conducted following the cognitive interview technique involved fewer questions than the structured interviews (t(27) = 2.58, p < .05). This result confirms the hypothesis that, by granting so much importance to free recall (already rich in detail), cognitive interviewing prevents investigators from falling back on routine questions to acquire information. Note, however, that this difference was not significant between the cognitive interview and the standard interview, although a corresponding tendency was observed (t(27) = 1.79, p < .09).


No significant difference was found between the three groups as to the number of leading questions asked (standard interview/structured interview: t(26) = 1.05, n.s.; standard interview/cognitive interview: t(27) = 1.40, n.s.; structured interview/cognitive interview: t(27) < 1, n.s.). This was also true of the number of negative questions asked (for all three comparisons: t < 1, n.s.). All of the evidence suggests that the training given to the police officers did not radically change their tendency to influence the witnesses.

Tableau 1


Mean number (and standard deviation) of questions asked during the session, including leading questions and negative questions, for each type of interview conducted by the investigators

(Nombre moyen (et écart type) de questions posées durant l’entretien, de questions dirigées et négatives selon le type d’entretien conduit par les enquêteurs

III . 1 . D. Length of Interviews


The larger number of questions asked in the standard or structured interviews in comparison to the cognitive interview affected their length. Even though some of the cognitive interviewing time was spent explaining the instructions, the average length of a cognitive interview was approximately the same as that of a standard or structured interview (for all pairwise comparisons: t < 1, n.s.; see Table 2). In the real world, it is important to consider the time constraints often confronting police investigators. If the additional time needed to present the cognitive interviewing instructions and to hear the free recall is counterbalanced by a reduction in the number of questions asked and by an improvement in the quality of the testimony, applying such a technique in the field can be considered as a valid alternative.

Tableau 2


Length of session (and standard deviation) in minutes, for each type of interview conducted by the investigators

Durée des entretiens (et écart type) en minutes selon le type d’entretien conduit par les enquêteurs



The number of correct details, errors, confabulations, and the accuracy levels of the testimonies are presented in Table 3 for each type of interview conducted.

III . 2 . A. Correct Details


As expected, the interviews conducted according to the cognitive interview method allowed for the retrieval of more correct details than did the interviews conducted following the standard procedures (t(27) = 2.33, p < .05). However, this difference was no longer statistically significant when the analysis was done on the written statements (t(27) = 1.75, p < .09). The cognitive interviews also proved more successful than the structured interviews in terms of the amount of correct information remembered by the witnesses (t(27) = 3.25, p < .01). This difference was observed in the written statements also (t(27) = 2.09, p < .05).

Tableau 3


Mean number (and standard deviation) of correct details, errors, confabulations, and accuracy level during the interview session and in the write-up of the witness’s testimony, for each type of interview conducted by the investigators

Nombre moyen (et écart type) d’informations correctes, d’erreurs, d’affabulations et taux d’exactitude obtenus dans les témoignages recueillis au cours des entretiens et sur procès-verbal selon le type d’entretien mené par les enquêteurs

III . 2 . B. Errors


The benefits of using the cognitive interview technique did not seem to cause a concomitant increase in the number of errors made by the witnesses as compared to the standard interviews, whether for the interview as a whole (t(27) = 1.27, n.s.) or simply for the written statements (t(27) < 1, n.s.). Nor was there a great difference in the number of errors between the structured interview and the cognitive interview, whether for errors made in the course of the interview or noted in the write-ups (t(27) < 1, n.s. for both comparisons).

III . 2 . C. Confabulations


In contrast, the number of confabulated details was found to depend upon the type of interview conducted. Cognitive interviews gave rise to significantly fewer confabulations than interviews conducted according to traditional procedures (standard interview). This difference was observed for the interview as a whole (t(27) = 2.03, p < .052) as well as in the written record of the testimony (t(27) = 2.77, p < .01). However, no significant difference was found in the number of confabulations between the cognitive and structured interviews themselves (t(27) < 1, n.s.) or in the corresponding written statements (t(27) = 1.43, n.s.).

III . 2 . D. Accuracy Level


Finally, as a logical consequence of the higher number of correct details and the smaller number of confabulations generated in the cognitive interviews, the level of accuracy achieved during cognitive interviewing and in the corresponding written statements was significantly higher. Although the comparison with the standard interview did not prove significant for the interview as a whole (t(27) = 1.09, n.s.), it showed up in the written rendition of the witness’s testimony (t(27) = 1.99, p < .057). The difference is very clear when the accuracy level in the cognitive interviews is compared with that of the structured interviews (t(27) = 2.38, p < .05 in the interview as a whole; t(27) = 3.07, p < .01 in the written record).



The data from this experiment demonstrate that the cognitive interview technique was successfully used in the field by investigators likely to employ this tool in their work. This technique led to a substantial gain in the amount of correct information remembered by the witnesses in the course of the interview as compared to a standard (+ 27 %) or structured (+ 36 %) approach. The gain was also apparent in the write-ups of the witnesses’testimonies when comparing the cognitive interviews with the structured ones, although the difference between the cognitive and standard interviews was only tendential in the written statements. The reformulation of the interviewee’s account by the investigator and the writing up of the report did not constitute a major obstacle to the use of the cognitive interviewing instructions, as Köhnken, Thürer, and Zoberbier demonstrated in 1995. However, as in their study, the present data indicated a reduction in the benefit of the cognitive interview when write-ups rather than tape recordings of the interviews were analyzed. Several interpretations seem likely. The fact that we presented the experiment as an attempt to demonstrate the greater efficacy of new interview techniques (i.e., the cognitive interview and the structured interview), compared with the usual procedures, may have encouraged the investigators to defend their usual practices. In this case, they would have tended to produce a more systematic write-up of the witness’s account in the standard interview. However, another interpretation cannot be readily ruled out: The increase in information in the cognitive interview might include details pertinent to the inquiry, but also some proportion of unimportant details which the investigator did not deem worth recording. A third interpretation would be that police officers have an a priori conception of what the write-up of a testimony should look like (Fisher et al., 1987; Ginet et al., 1998), in terms of style (especially judicial and legal terminology), background (order of events, description of persons involved, etc.), and length. This preconceived idea may lead them to “smooth out” the information contained in the declarations.


This study also allowed us to ascertain that, as a whole, the effect of the type of interview was more clearly in favor of cognitive interviewing when it was compared with the structured interview than when compared with the standard police interview. The standard interview corresponds to the police officers’usual way of proceeding, but the other two types of interviewing require modifications of their daily job practices. From the methodological standpoint, then, the basis for a legitimate comparison of the effects of the cognitive interview seems to be the structured interview. The fact that the benefits of the cognitive interview were clearer when compared to the structured interview rather than the standard interview is therefore not surprising. More surprising was the ineffectiveness of the structured interview compared with the standard police interview. Structured interviewing is supposed to correct the main shortcomings of the usual procedures used by interviewing investigators: Greater reliance upon free recall (which was achieved here), attention paid to how the questions were worded (this proved more difficult), etc. It is reasonable to suggest that having to modify their usual practices is an annoyance for police officers, at least in the short term. This was true here not only of the structured interview, but also of the cognitive interview.


Although, generally speaking, the structured interview provided the best basis for the favorable assessment of cognitive interviewing, the standard interview revealed the cognitive interview’s potential ability to reduce errors and confabulations. In fact, the technique exhibited the following three qualitatively beneficial characteristics:


1 / Emphasis was placed on free recall, particularly in the French version of the cognitive interview (information remembered spontaneously is generally more accurate than information provided in response to questions: Lipton, 1977).


2 / As a direct consequence of the importance attached to free recall, the investigator asked fewer questions (compared with the structured interview) and this limited the police officer’s influence on the witness, especially in the case of leading questions. Note, however, that no difference was found in the number of questions of this kind asked before and after training. Although investigators were made aware of the negative effect of badly worded questions, they did not succeed in avoiding them. This result is consistent with the findings obtained by Fisher-Holst and Pezdek (1992), who demonstrated that leading questions could have a powerful impact on the recall of participants even if they were forewarned of the risks of being influenced by such questions. According to the results of our study, it seems that the investigators were not aware that asking questions of a leading nature might influence the interviewee (e.g., “Was the girl young?”, “Was it a big car?”, “Did that car have four doors?”, “Did he tear her clothes, rip them off?”).


3 / Information was more accessible and recollection more detailed as a result, which made the witnesses more resistant to suggestion (Geiselman et al., 1986; Milne, Bull, Köhnken, & Memon, 1995). The structured interviews had two of these three characteristics (free recall and a small number of questions). For this reason, we should expect to see a tangible and qualitative difference when comparing the cognitive interview with the standard one. That is indeed what was found regarding the number of confabulations produced (and transcribed in the written statements) in the cognitive interviews compared with the standard ones.


Although this study has demonstrated that the cognitive interview successfully enhances the richness and quality of recollection (its use led to an increase in the accuracy level of the testimonies), it has also shown that this technique is easily assimilated by police officers even after only a short period of training. These results are in line with those obtained by Geiselman et al. (Geiselman et al., 1986), who were able to show that the cognitive interview could be very successfully employed by police officers trained in a short 20-minute session. Remember, however, that Memon et al. (1994) failed to find any effect of the technique when used by police officers who had undergone training lasting more than four hours. Perhaps the training given by Memon was ineffective. The authors in fact emphasized that the cognitive interviewing instructions were under-used by the investigators. In the current study, nothing of this kind happened: Apart from the hypermnesia instruction, the cognitive interviewing instructions were systematically followed by the police officers.


Finally, it is worth noting that the cognitive interview did not pose any major application difficulties with respect to the physical and temporal limitations involved in the day-to-day operations of a police station. Particularly, using this technique did not seem to take more time. However, it is planned for use principally in serious and exceptional circumstances. For more minor events, the technique could prove costly both for the investigator and the witness when weighed against the potential benefits. Perhaps it would be a good idea to adapt the cognitive interview to such circumstances by only employing, for example, one or two of the instructions rather than all four. However, we currently lack the necessary data for pinpointing the specific effects of each instruction in order to use them in a manner appropriate to the concerned witness (for example, it is difficult to ask victims to try and put themselves in the shoes of their attacker) and to the type of event treated in the testimony (degree of violence, level of familiarity, etc.).


In short, this study strongly indicates that the cognitive interview could be fruitfully employed in the field. At the moment, its application in preliminary investigations of criminal events in France and Belgium is rare. Among the 200 police detectives, officers, and examining magistrates we trained in investigative interview techniques in these two countries, most appear to use some aspects of the technique from time to time: free recall, hypermnesia, reinstatement of mental context, change of narration order. Two problems limit the general use of the cognitive interview, however. The first has to do with the risks incurred by the use of the change-of-perspective instruction. In fact, many law-enforcement and judicial investigators are reluctant to ask a witness to adopt the point of view of another protagonist because of the risk of confabulations this instruction could generate. Although these studies do not reinforce this viewpoint, it cannot be argued either that there is no negative effect on confabulations resulting from the change of perspective. The second problem concerns the specific nature of Napoleonic penal procedures. This inquisitorial type of procedure in fact assumes that the written statement is the sole record of the interview with a witness (the only exception in France since June 1999 being child interviews). Law-enforcement and judicial investigators in other countries with a similar penal tradition find it necessary to use a technique which includes a written statement. Consequently, our current research aims are, firstly, to replace the change of perspective with a less problematic instruction, and secondly, to incorporate the statement-writing phase into the formula.


Finally, we might add that the cognitive interview technique was developed in a judicial context, where the testimony is of major importance. Yet all evidence suggests that other social fields could benefit from the use of a tool that can enhance people’s memory. As Leplat stated (1996), the cognitive interview could easily be adapted to investigations of occupational accidents. In fact, there is no a priori difference in terms of recollection of facts by the victim between an accident at work, a road accident, and an attack. The results of a study currently in progress in a large public transport firm seem to indicate that the cognitive interview technique can greatly assist in understanding why accidents happen. Thus, this technique could also be useful in other social fields that are far removed from the law-enforcement and judicial systems, such as medical diagnostic research, or even as a “crutch” for the memory of elderly people.


Paper received: September 1999.

Accepted in modified form: February 2001.


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Un texte en français proche de cet article peut être obtenu auprès de M. Ginet.


It should be noted that « reconstruction », which is practiced for crimes judged in France in an Assize Court, is itself a form of reinstatement of the physical context, and can be expected to have a particularly beneficial effect on memory.


Two of the three films were produced under our supervision, in order to guarantee that the participants would have no prior knowledge of them. The third (sexual attack) was an excerpt from a film broadcast on television several years earlier, which all participants said they had not seen.


Each investigator interviewed at most two witnesses who had seen the same scene. The problem of the investigator having prior knowledge of certain elements of the scene during the second interview about the same event cannot be ruled out. It should be noted, however, that this aspect of the study generates unfavorable conditions for obtaining a positive effect of cognitive interviewing on the number of leading questions (questions formulated with the intention of confirming a previous hypothesis).



L’objectif de cette recherche était de mettre à l’épreuve du terrain une nouvelle technique d’audition destinée à améliorer les souvenirs des témoins : la technique de l’entretien cognitif. Les fondements théoriques de cette technique sont issus de certains modèles de la mémoire humaine, et plus particulièrement à partir de l’hypothèse de l’encodage spécifique de Tulving et du concept de contexte. L’entretien cognitif, initialement développé aux États-Unis, comprend quatre consignes que l’interviewé est invité à utiliser au cours de l’entretien : 1 / se remettre mentalement dans le contexte des faits criminels ; 2 / rappeler le maximum de détails, même s’ils apparaissent peu importants ou associés à un niveau de certitude moindre ; 3 / rappeler la scène dans un ordre chronologique différent, et 4 / rappeler la scène selon différentes perspectives. La présente étude a été conduite en collaboration avec des officiers français de police dans le but de tester l’efficacité de l’entretien cognitif pour améliorer les souvenirs de témoins. Cette nouvelle technique a été comparée avec : 1 / des entretiens standards de police correspondant aux procédures habituelles d’audition, et 2 / des entretiens “ structurés ” correspondant à des entretiens standards de police corrigés (davantage d’importance accordée au rappel libre, meilleure formulation des questions, etc.). Les résultats indiquent, d’une part, une bonne applicabilité de l’entretien cognitif sur le terrain (assimilation correcte de la technique par les policiers, pas de coût supplémentaire en termes de durée des auditions) et, d’autre part, une importante efficacité de la technique du point de vue des souvenirs rapportés par les témoins, y compris après transcription sur procès-verbal. L’entretien cognitif permet non seulement de recueillir davantage d’informations correctes, mais il améliore aussi la qualité générale des récits (proportion d’informations correctes rappelées par rapport à la quantité totale de détails rapportés). Ces observations permettent d’envisager une généralisation de la technique de l’entretien cognitif sur le terrain, auprès du monde judiciaire. Elles permettent également de concevoir l’application de ce nouvel outil dans d’autres domaines dans lesquels des témoignages sont impliqués, tels celui des accidents du travail ou celui de la santé.

Mots cles

  • Entretien cognitif
  • Témoignage oculaire
  • Rappel libre
  • Consigne


SUMMARY The purpose of this study was to field test a new procedure for interviewing witnesses aimed at improving the memory of the person interviewed: The Cognitive Interview. The theoretical bases of this technique were drawn from models of human memory, particularly Tulving’s (1983) encoding specificity hypothesis and the concept of context. The Cognitive Interview, which was developed in the United Sates, includes four instructions which the interviewee is asked to follow throughout the interview: 1 / mentally reinstate the context that surrounded the criminal event, 2 / recall the maximum amount of information, even if it appears to have little relevance or is accorded a lower level of confidence (hypermnesia), 3 / recount the scene in a different chronological order, and 4 / recount the scene from a different perspective. The present study was conducted in collaboration with police officers in order to test the ability of the Cognitive Interview to enhance witnesses’memory. This new technique was compared with 1 / standard police interviews following normal interview procedures, and 2 / structured interviews corresponding to improved standard police interviews (more importance attached to free recall, better wording of questions, etc.). The results indicate firstly that cognitive interviewing techniques can be applied well in this field (correct assimilation of the technique by police officers, no additional cost in terms of interview length), and secondly, that the technique is highly effective in terms of the memories produced by the witnesses, even in the written statements. The Cognitive Interview not only seems to elicit a larger amount of correct information but also improves the general quality of the accounts (ratio of the amount of correctly recalled information to the total number of details reported). These observations suggest the possibility of expanding the use of the cognitive interview technique to the law-enforcement and judicial fields. They also pave the way for the application of this new tool to broader areas where testimonies are involved, such as work accidents and health care.

Mots cles

  • Cognitive Interview
  • Eyewitness testimony
  • Free recall
  • Instructions

Plan de l'article

    2. II . 2. POPULATION
    3. II . 3. PROCEDURE
      1. II . 3 . A. First Phase: Interviews Before Training
      2. II . 3 . B. Second Phase: Training in Cognitive Interviewing Versus Structured Interviewing
      3. II . 3 . C. Third Phase: Interviews After Training
      1. III . 1 . A. Importance Accorded to Free Recall
      2. III . 1 . B. Application of Cognitive Interviewing Instructions
      3. III . 1 . C. Number and Wording of Questions
      4. III . 1 . D. Length of Interviews
      1. III . 2 . A. Correct Details
      2. III . 2 . B. Errors
      3. III . 2 . C. Confabulations
      4. III . 2 . D. Accuracy Level

Pour citer cet article

Ginet M., Py J., « A technique for enhancing memory in eye witness testimonies for use by police officers and judicial officials : the cognitive interview », Le travail humain 2/2001 (Vol. 64) , p. 173-191
DOI : 10.3917/th.642.0173.

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