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The Attention Distracted Interviewer

by Stan B. Walters, CSP
“The Lie Guy®”

The famous screen and stage actor Kevin Spacey was recently performing the role of Willie Lohman in the play “Death of Salesman.”  In the middle of one of the scenes a cell phone began ringing somewhere in the audience.  After a few annoying moments the phone ceased ringing only to start ringing again!  Spacey stopped his performance and told the member of the audience that the actors would be pleased to wait for the owner to answer the phone and tell the caller to call back later.  We are now living a culture of constant interruptions that has shortened everyone”s attention span and eroding away at our ability to concentrate on completing even one task at a time.

Unfortunately this era of attraction distraction has also invaded the interview room.  In the consulting side of my work, I frequently review and analyze audio and videotape interviews and interrogations.  More than once I have witnessed interviewers, who have totally lost control of the focus of the interview, the loss of concentration on their part as well as that of there subject and the overall degradation of the productivity of their interview efforts. Personal interruptions, external disruptions and a flooded room are just some of the distractions I’ve witnessed.

When you enter into an interview situation, your attention should be totally focused on your subject, obtaining case facts, admissions and confessions.  In two separate interview videos, I observed female interviewers engage in personal grooming behavior.  In each case they pulled out either hand or body moisturizing creams and began treating their hands, elbows and in one case the female interviewer went as far as pulling off her shoes and rubbing cream on her heals.  Don’t get all puffed up guys!  I’ve also observed male interviewers take cell calls from wives and girlfriends during an interview.  In one case I could hear one interviewer over his interviewing partner still talking to the subject as he made plans for a dinner date as he stood over in the corner of the interview room talking on his cell phone.

Distractions aren’t always generated from inside the interview room.  Many of us have victims of “helpful” fellow officers, investigators, or staff who suddenly decide that their little problems should be a crisis shared by everyone including anyone interview room. You shouldn’t every let the fact that there’s interview going on stand in the way of planning who is going to buy the beer and bring the ribs for the tailgate party for the ballgame Saturday.  Itís also important to find out if the guys in the interview want to go in on pizza for lunch and you certainly want to keep tabs on how the interview is going so just stick your head in the room and asked if he’s “given it up yet.”

There is no doubt that there are times when problems can be solved better when we have several people together brainstorming.  It doesn’t work well however in the interview room.  In the video of one homicide investigation it was apparently important to have all jurisdictions represented.  I counted three jurisdictions and a total of 6 interviewers counting the attending supervisors.  In two separate cases involving juvenile homicide subjects I counted 6 and 7 participants respectively counting the parents and family members.  It’s kinda hard to stay on track when everyone feels they have to ask questions.

Have you let all the distractions take over your interview room?  Whoever had the idea that humans can learn to “multitask” their activities has never been inside “The Room.” Interviews are far too important in consequence to be some contaminated by controllable distractions.  Take ownership of your interview room and demand the full attention and focus of those present.  Enforce a “no distractions rule.”  Limit the number of people in the room to a bear minimum.  Ditch the cell phones and pagers before you come in ñ ban them from the room if necessary.  Make it department policy that NO ONE walks into the interview room uninvited or unexpected unless it is absolutely critical to the interview.  In addition, don’t forget to respect the rules of your fellow investigators and interviewers when they are conducting their interviews.

Intuitive versus Analytical Diagnosis of Credibility

by Stan B. Walters, CSP
“The Lie Guy®”

Historically human beings are very bad at spotting deception failing on average 50% or more the time to identify lies. Unfortunately, investigative interviewers and  professionals in many other disciplines also have the same poor performance based on numerous research studies.  One of the major contributing factors is that most of us make our assessments about whether a person is being truthful or deceptive based on our “gut feelings” and other undefined symptoms.  Such intuitive assessments have always proven themselves to be inconsistent and unreliable.  When an investigative interviewer focuses their analysis on more reliable documented verbal and nonverbal cues, their accuracy dramatically improves.

An “intuitive” analysis of a subject frequently is characterized by comments such as “I think he’s lying” or “I know he’s hiding something.”   When you ask the observer what specific behaviors make them believe the person is deceptive you often get answers such as “I can tell,” “You just know” and they fail to identify any reliable cues. When they do cite verbal or nonverbal cues those that are mentioned as deception markers are more often than not are just signs of stress or incriminating stress cues and fail to isolate lies.

A reliable analytical diagnosis of behavior focuses on specific questions or issues and clearly defined behavior responses by the subject.  These analyses are characterized by comments including terms such as “clusters”, “timing”, “consistent”, “change” and “constant.”  In these cases the interviewer – observer can be very specific about a subject’s deception and can name the particular behaviors. The behaviors mentioned will be cues identified as “denial”, “aversion”, “negation”, “contradiction”, “unclear thought line” or “performance.”

The danger of making an “intuitive” diagnosis is that they are subject to “pre-conceptions” by the interviewer that more often than not results in gross misdiagnosis.  As we’ve discussed in the past the existence of pre-conception on behalf of the interviewer is also most often results in contamination of the interview further compounding the error of the credibility assessment.   The end result of such a flawed analysis can be wasted time, investigative effort and resources and at worst a case subject to crushing attacks that can be made in defense of the subject in trial and disciplinary proceedings.  An analytical diagnosis requires a lot more effort by the interviewer.  The observer will force themselves to resist making blanket statements about their subject’s lack of honesty without specific behaviors they have identified to support their conclusions.  Cases made with such extensive micro-analysis typically contain better quality information and often other forensic sources that provide confirmation of the subject’s remarks.  These cases are also more likely to survive any challenge of prejudice, flawed analysis, contamination and some cases even false confession.  On what basis are you deciding the subject is being deceptive – your ‘gut feelings’ or reliable behavioral cues that you can cite on a point-to-point basis? Don’t just tell me your subject is lying – tell me what he or she is lying about and the specific behaviors that have led you to that conclusion.