PERSPECTIVES - Bridging voices, inspiring hope

Dr Kai Li Chung: Applying psychology to strengthen investigative interviewing - Part 1

May 08, 2023 Association for Prevention of Torture
Dr Kai Li Chung: Applying psychology to strengthen investigative interviewing - Part 1
PERSPECTIVES - Bridging voices, inspiring hope
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PERSPECTIVES - Bridging voices, inspiring hope
Dr Kai Li Chung: Applying psychology to strengthen investigative interviewing - Part 1
May 08, 2023
Association for Prevention of Torture

This episode of Perspectives is the first of two episodes exploring the psychology of police interviewing.

Associate Professor Doctor Kai Li Chung is Head of Psychology at the University of Reading, Malaysia. A leading researcher in forensic psychology, her research explores how psychology can be applied to improve criminal justice systems, with a focus on investigative interviewing practices.

This series was recorded at a seminar in Kuala Lumpur on the Méndez Principles on Effective Interviewing, where Dr Kai Li shared her research and insights with representatives from civil society organisations and national human rights institutions from Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Show Notes Transcript

This episode of Perspectives is the first of two episodes exploring the psychology of police interviewing.

Associate Professor Doctor Kai Li Chung is Head of Psychology at the University of Reading, Malaysia. A leading researcher in forensic psychology, her research explores how psychology can be applied to improve criminal justice systems, with a focus on investigative interviewing practices.

This series was recorded at a seminar in Kuala Lumpur on the Méndez Principles on Effective Interviewing, where Dr Kai Li shared her research and insights with representatives from civil society organisations and national human rights institutions from Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Almudena Garcia
Hello and welcome to Perspectives, the APT’s podcast which explores contemporary issues related to torture prevention and dignity in detention.

I’m Almudena Garcia, APT’s Digital Communication Adviser, and we are delighted to share with you the first of two episodes exploring the psychology of police interviewing.

Associate Professor Doctor Kai Li Chung is Head of Psychology at the University of Reading, Malaysia.

A leading researcher in forensic psychology, her research explores how psychology can be applied to improve criminal justice systems, with a focus on investigative interviewing practices.

This series was recorded at a seminar in Kuala Lumpur on the Méndez Principles on Effective Interviewing, where Dr Kai Li shared her research and insights with representatives from civil society organisations and national human rights institutions from Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Dr Kai Li Chung

My area is, I was trained as a psychologist in the sense that I did my PhD in forensic psychology. And what forensic psychology really actually means is psychology that is applicable in law. So I have a special interest in forensic psychology. I'm interested in understanding how the knowledge in psychology can be used to improve criminal justice systems. So that's kind of where I'm coming from.

So what I'm going to talk about today, just to caveat a little bit, is going to be based on psychological research, some theories, some data. And what I would like to do first is to sort of talk about the psychology behind investigative interviewing. Because I think that's very, very important to understand what was the practice before, why is it problematic and how we can move forward.

Okay, so in very lecturer style, I want to do a bit of an understanding of what do people think. And this is usually what I get every time when we ask: “Would you ever confess to a crime that you did not commit?”. My psychology students will say, “Absolutely no way I will do it.” And every time I would re-ask this question at the end of my lecture and then the percentage moves in a little bit. And the reason why I want to do this poll is because I am going to be talking a little bit about false confessions, which is the very thing that we are trying to prevent in the criminal justice system. So although I research in forensic psychology, I have a very, very special interest in the way in which police conduct interviews. And that's why the work that I have is really to understand why do they conduct interviews the way they do and is there any room for improvement? And if so, what are the challenges that prevent them from improving their practice?

And to bear in mind that this is work that has been done very much largely in Western European countries. We actually know very little about the work within our region and I think that is perhaps one of the things that we can try and improve in the next few years. And then finally I'll touch a little bit upon the work that has been based on more peaceful methods of interviewing and why do we endorse the Mendez Principles.

Okay. I know that this case comes up very often in a lot of police interviewing training manuals and stuff like that. But just to give people a bit of an idea, this is the very, very famous Central Park jogger case. So there was a female jogger who was running in Central Park. She subsequently got beaten, raped, sodomised and left for dead just in Central Park. She did not die, but she couldn't remember a single thing that happened during that attack because they'd really beaten her really badly at the brain. So she temporarily forgot the incident. Immediately, during the initial police investigation, it was focused upon a group of African American, as well as Latino youth. And they started being interrogated. And this was afterwards, they found out that after very, very aggressive interrogations, all the boys confessed and four of them confessed on videotape. They went to trial, they were convicted and they were sentenced to prison.

And they were known as the Central Park Five back then. And now I think they're known as the Exonerated Five, because what happened after that. They were exonerated because of evidence that found out that somebody actually already serving time in prison, they confessed to this crime and they managed to match the DNA evidence, that it really is this person called Matias Reyes who committed the crime. So it makes us question why was the confession so convincing? Why were they convicted because of the confession that was being videotaped? And why, even sometimes with DNA evidence, the confession evidence is actually stronger? That if you were a judge, if you were a juror, you believe more the confession evidence? Because, back to the poll we did just now, if I were to ask you would you ever confess to a crime that you did not commit, it's usually a resounding no. So if you confess, you must have done it. Am I right? Yeah. And what's really interesting, when you look at the testimony and the confession, they sign it, that means that you agree that this is what has happened. And it's usually very, very detailed. They talk about the sights, the colours, what you did, the smell. It's very, very detailed and vivid. And that is why the average person finds it very, very difficult to understand why people would confess to something that they did not do.

What are the percentage of false confessions that occur in the criminal justice system, do you think? Just a wild guess. 50? Well, not that much. It's about 16 to 27% in the United States according to some estimates. Very, very rough estimates. Because it's very, very difficult to get data like that. And that's the thing in forensic psychology research, we cannot really know the ground truth in a lot of reality. Somebody who confesses, you cannot really assume that they're making a false confession or a true confession. And you may argue that, well not say 50%, but 27%, it's all right. But there's always a saying in the criminal justice system where it is much more damaging to send somebody innocent to prison than to let a perpetrator go.

And again, it depends on to what extent the people falsely confess because that is tied into practice interviewing practice. So if you did interviewing practices well – again, we cannot do it perfectly because we're all humans – if you did it well, the chances of this can be reduced significantly. And that's the kind of aim we're trying to get at.

But common things, eyewitness identification – and if you went through a lecture with me, I'll talk to you about how the human memory is really flawed – so eyewitness identification, just because you pointed to the person and said, “I know it was you've done it”, you could be wrong. Because crime usually happens under distress. It happens really fast. That's the thing, our memory is really flawed. Our face recognition skills are also pretty bad, if you look at the research. But eyewitness identification in error can happen. Junk forensic signs. So back in the day when technology was not very, very advanced, and if you see some of the Innocence Project cases, they will say, “oh, they saw the bite mark and they say that bite mark is mine and that's it, and that was what I was convicted based upon”. So junk forensic signs 

This is an interesting one. Legal misconduct is when there is some purposeful misconduct among the authorities. But sometimes there's also legal ineptitude, which is something that we can change. So it means that they are not very skilled, authorities are not very skilled at what they're doing, which can be improved with education and training. And finally, of course, I talked a little bit about false confession. So when a confession comes about, that's usually the reason why cases have been convicted.

So these are some of the risk factors. Risk factors means under what circumstances will somebody be more likely to falsely confess. It doesn't mean that there's a type of person that will definitely falsely confess, but these are risk factors. It could be that especially young children and adolescents are the greatest risk and that's why we've got safeguards for vulnerable populations. And then you've got cognitive and intellectual disabilities. Yeah? Personality and psychopathology, mental illnesses, disabilities can also cause a person to be more likely to confess.

But what I'm really interested is actually the circumstances in interrogation, like I mentioned. These are what we call system variables. So these are things within the criminal justice system that we can manipulate, change, amend in order to improve the outcomes of a legal investigation.

Okay. So we've talked about police interviewing, we've talked a bit, but we've not actually touched upon the word interrogation that much. Do you think there's a difference between police interview and interrogation? What is the, just humor me, the Malaysians, what's the word for interrogation in Malay? Soal siasat. Is that a very neutral word? It means question, investigate, right? Is that a neutral word, you think? It doesn't sound super coercive. It just means that I'm interested in finding out. But if you notice the new Principles, they've actually changed it to imply 'interviewing', which is in a way more pleasant. It's just like a job interview that you go to. But in general, I think that the point is interrogation, even the English word, it always implies torture. It implies that I'm trying to get a confession. 

The aim of an interrogation is to get a confession. Because again, if somebody were to be taken into custody, or somebody would be arrested, you must have some strong reasons to believe that that person is involved in a crime, isn't it? Why would you think otherwise? Right place at the right time? Or the person who falsely confess will say you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the wrong circumstances. And interrogation implies that it's often to gain some form of confession and some coercive methods are being used. Even though actually, if you look at the definition, it's very neutral. Questioning a person who is suspected of crime and who is in custody.

And sometimes, from a sort of academic perspective, we always say it's usually initiated when there's weak evidence. Because if you have DNA, if you had a CCTV, you've got the person. But it's usually because there's no evidence, then the confession becomes heavily weighted. Because again, going back to that idea that if you didn't do it, you won't confess. But if you confess, you must have done it. Yeah?

And I just wanted to briefly mention that if you look at data all over the world, there are generally two methods. Generally speaking, in a very, very broad sense. There is the accusatorial, where it is confession-driven. And I'll talk a little bit about the Reid technique. The reason is because there's actually a manual that teaches investigators how to get a confession from suspects. It's really controversial and they've evolved the manual throughout the years, but there's some psychologically manipulative techniques that are still very, very much the core of the techniques which we'll talk about. And there's information gathering processes, which is what the Méndez Principles are based upon. What is the difference between these two techniques? Are they equally able to not only obtain confessions, we're talking about reliable confessions, but at the same time reduce the chances of false confessions?

So this is the Reid technique and this is extensively used in the United States of America and it usually goes through a two-phase approach. And they claim or they argue that the first phase is very much information-gathering. They don't presume guilt and will look at what the claims are, and how psychological research has either supported or disputed the findings of an interrogation. So they start off with having a behavioral analysis interview, and this is in the manual, where they claim that it's a neutral information-gathering interview and its aim is to determine whether or not a person is guilty or innocent.

So they say that if the person is guilty, we'll continue on with the interrogation. If the person is not guilty, that means that's fine, then they will move on. But the issues that psychologists usually have is how do they determine whether or not a person is guilty or innocent? And it's very much based on whether or not they think the person is telling a lie. And they claim that trained investigators, if they're trained in the Reid technique, they have up to 85% of accuracy level.

Through psychological research, what do you think is the percentage of accuracy when it comes to judging truth and deception? 40, somebody said? 30, 20? What do you think? What is our ability of detecting lies and deception? Zero? The actual research is usually about 50% globally. You and I have only about chance level of determining whether or not a person is telling the truth or telling lies. Do you think police investigators are better? Do you think people can be trained to be better at detecting lines? I can give a whole lecture about that, but there is some evidence that police officers can be trained to be. Generally speaking, people can be trained to be better lie detectors, but only if you are looking at verbal cues. Asking your suspects to speak. So what the Méndez Principle advocates is that you want to get more information. If you are going to be coercive, they're going to shut up. No information, no way of telling whether or not they are telling the truth or a lie. Yeah?

So the cognitive interview that comes behind all this interviewing is really to get them talking, but giving you reliable information. And when you want to identify whether or not they're telling the truth or lies, you can then use specific strategies through the verbal cues. In general, behavioral symptoms, like whether or not they have eye contact, whether or not they fidget, whether or not they sweat, all these are unreliable cues of lie detection. That means if you rely on their body language, almost certainly you will not be very accurate at detecting lies. But anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that the Reid technique claims that if you're trained you get 85% accuracy and this is not verified. And that's the trouble. If investigators believe in this, they will just endorse this technique. So again, the idea is that we should be basing our practice on evidence-based research, not on claims made by people in general. So don't trust everything I say, verify the information that I'm telling you. Yeah? Okay. 

So once they identify that this person is telling a lie, they go through this official interrogation method,. And the problem with the Reid technique is because it presumes guilt. What this means is that they're going there to gain a confession because you assume this person is guilty. And it's psychologically-oriented and you may not necessarily have to use any form of physical torture, but it's highly confrontational and highly accusatory and the aim is to get an outcome, a confession. And it's very systematic because they tell you there are nine steps to do it.

First of all, you have a direct positive confrontation, where you tell the suspect that there is evidence to show that they're guilty. And this can be true or a lie. So in certain jurisdictions, correct me if I'm wrong, we've got representative from the Bar Association, but certain jurisdictions do not allow lying to the suspect. You cannot say that you've got evidence against them if you do not have. But under the Reid technique, in the past at least, it was allowed. You can tell them that there's evidence against you and this is an opportunity, they phrase it in a very nice way, for you to tell the truth. And then they go on with doing some theme development.

Theme development means you go with along with a story and usually people always have a backstory, you know. They tell you they didn't do it. And then you try and go through a theme development where you present a moral justification. So you say, “well you didn't do it because you are a mean person, you did it because they made you do it. And it was because you know really needed money and therefore you broke into the house”. And they try to do some form of moral justification. And then they would present it in a very sympathetic manner. But this sympathetic manner, it's not genuine. It is a technique to get people to speak. And this is something that is considered not ethical, as we know from the Méndez Principles. 

Almost certainly, they would deny. Whether or not you've done it, if you are arrested, you will deny your involvement. But the investigators are asked to discourage them, you shouldn't allow them to deny it. And then try and say that, "Oh, but we saw your hand prints there". And the person would try and say, "Well it couldn't have been, because I wasn't there". So they would try and overcome any form of objections, continuing with this sort of, as you heard before, the good cop, bad cop. Trying to be very sympathetic but at the same time telling them that it must have been you.

What do you think globally is the average interrogation time? Some data suggests that for those people who falsely confess, the average interrogation time is about six hours. Very obviously from a psychological perspective, your attention goes away because you're tired, you are hungry and therefore your attention goes off. But the idea, the recommendation to police officers, is that you go closer to them, to invade their space. Like I said, they're tired and the investigator is asked to continue to display a very sympathetic demeanour in order to urge them to tell the truth, which is essentially to confess.

Now I'll talk a little bit about presenting an alternative questions. Basically they give them two questions and they want them to pick one answer. I'll talk a little bit about what that means later on. And then the next step, of course, is to get them to orally relate the details of the offense. And that's when you get very, very detailed details about the supposed offense and, in the end, you ensure that they convert this into a written form and you ask them to sign itthis according to the manual. It has an interrogation room recommended layout. This is generally what they recommend. That is, you get a very small, smallish room, soundproof, bare. Lighting should be minimum so that you know can invade the space whenever possible. The room should be fitted with a one-way mirror to give them a sense that they're being watched but they don't know who is watching them. And also there are practical reasons. Sometimes they say that a mirror for observation is useful because you can then, if somebody's telling lie or asking them to change the method of interviewing, you can do that. But the idea again is to create a physical environment that is supposed to promote the sense of isolation and they feel very, very helpless, which can increase their chance of confessing.

So this is back in 1990. It is an experiment but it gives us a very good pre-evaluation of whether or not this technique is actually useful. So this is an experiment done by Saul Kassin, a very famous psychologist who has done research in this area. They wanted to know whether or not this lie detection that we're talking about works. Remember they've got this behavioral analysis interview where they say that you can detect lies up to 85% accuracy. So they wanted to evaluate whether or not this is true. So they wanted to ask whether people in general can differentiate when somebody is giving a true denial or a false denial. And they wanted to know whether, if you train people in using cues to say, if you identify this person who's avoiding eye contact, they must be telling you lies. Whether or not training people can improve their accuracy.

In psychology, we have what we call a mock crime paradigm where you would create a fake crime situation. You ask them to be part of that crime situation and then you will do some manipulation and they'll find out the results. So what they did here is that they had university students, half of them, they asked them to commit a crime. So they say go and vandalise this wall, write something obscene. And half of them were asked to just go and watch, look at this wall that has some obscene messages on it. So you have one group that has done the vandalism, who is guilty. And then one group which is innocent because they were just there to view the wall. And what they were told is that, once you've done this, you'll be interrogated and your aim is to convince them that you are innocent. So they were stopped by a security guard and then they were taken for interrogation and they would say, you know, if you are caught, make sure that you just do not sign the confession. Make sure that you say that you are innocent. And what was interesting is that these interrogations were recorded and they had another group of people watch this interrogation through the videotapes.

These observers – 40 of them – half of them were trained in the Reid technique and half of them were just naive people. They don't know any better about the Reid technique. They all watched this interrogation and they say, "Okay, in this videotape some people are lying, can you tell me who is the truth teller and who's the liar?" And these are the findings. You've got trained people, who have about 45% accuracy. So even below chance. Look at the naive ones. In fact, they were better. If you were not trained, you were better at telling whether or not a person is a truth teller or a lie teller. But look at the confidence. They also ask them “how confident are you that you are accurate?” Trained people were more confident. And there's a thing in our research, that looks at confidence as well as accuracy. Confidence does not always relate to accuracy. Just because you're very sure about the accuracy of it doesn't mean that you are correct.

They did it back in 2002 again. And then what do you notice here? They were not any better at identifying truth teller and lie tellers. But they were significantly more confident about their ability to do so. So there's a danger here that experience and qualification indicates accuracy. Yeah, it's just something to bear in mind.

Okay, so I want to move a little bit about this idea of why do people waive their, I think in the US they call it, their Miranda rights. I think in Malaysia we call it the right to silence. So this is something that you know about, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you. You have the right to an attorney. And so you want people to, we want them to retain these rights, right? Because it's important as a safeguard. But what they found out was, interestingly, why a lot of people actually waive this right. In the sense that the moment they're being questioned, they speak even though they know very well they shouldn't speak until they have a lawyer. So why do people speak, even though they have the right to remain silent? This is what this research was interested in finding out.

Again, a very typical mock crime paradigm, where somebody did something guilty and somebody was innocent and they were asked to not confess and not to waive their Miranda rights. The experimenters also manipulated the way in which they were being interviewed. So in one condition they asked them to read the Miranda rights in a very neutral manner, where they said that you just read the Miranda rights. And then there is a sympathetic condition where they ask the experimenter to tell the participants, “just relax, this is just a formality. I think that you are guilty but let's go through the interview to see whether or not you really are”. And then there's another condition where they're really, really hostile, where they would say, “I'm sick of this of happening. I know you did it. Just don't waste my time and let's get through with it. Just confess.” Okay?

So there's three different types of way in which they were being read their Miranda rights. The detective who interviewed these people did not know which group was innocent, or which group was guilty. So that's an important thing, to be blind about who was guilty so that you cannot be biased. But the detective, or the interviewer, was asked to give the form to the participants and asked them to sign to either choose that they are willing to make a statement or not willing to make a statement. So whether or not they will sign off the Miranda rights.

So this is the percentage of participants who agree to waive their rights. The innocent people were more likely to waive their rights to silence. The innocent people are more likely to start talking even though they shouldn't. Why is that the case? So we talk about the naive faith of the power of innocence will set them free. And you remember the interview just now that I showed? It says that “I thought the police were there to protect me”. If I was innocent, surely they would protect me and not let me go to jail. So there's a lot of these ideas of power of innocence will set them free. And this idea that, we call it a belief in a just world. In psychology, we have this concept where you believe that bad people, bad things will happen to them. The good people will have good things happen to them, and it shouldn't be the other way around. But in reality, that's not necessarily the case. So this naive idea that you believe that there's a just world sometimes can cause them to waive their innocence rights.

Our systems are supposed to be transparent, but they're often not. But again, the general public thinks that this is the criminal justice system, I'm supposed to be protected. So if I didn't do anything wrong, nothing bad should really happen to me. This is an illusion that they believe in. So what this tells us is that a lot of these warnings that we have, we routinely tell people it's actually not very sufficient to protect the people who need it the most. And there's a lot of work that looked into the sort of legal sayings that we tell people. And a person with an average intelligence, they don't necessarily understand the legal terms that we use. And this is very interesting because if you were to be read your legal rights, you must understand those legal rights first. If you don't understand, how are you supposed to make a decision based on something that you don't understand? So I think that's something for us to reflect upon, where we as academics or as lawyers, we use our very high-tech words, our jargon, and know the average population may not necessarily understand that.

Almudena Garcia

Associate Professor Doctor Kai Li Chung is Head of Psychology at the University of Reading, Malaysia.

The second episode of this two-part series is now available. You can also download the transcripts.

Thanks for listening to Perspectives and we look forward to your company next time.