“In 1991, a Miami woman walking through the lobby of an office building casually noticed two men standing together.
Several minutes after her departure, the men murdered a person working in the building. Police investigators determined that the woman was the only person who had observed the two suspects and could possibly describe them. In an initial standard interview with police, her memory of the men proved disappointingly sketchy.
Police brought in psychologist Ronald Fisher to help the witness remember more detail. Fisher’s interview consisted of a series of memory-enhancing strategies which produced a breakthrough in the case:
The woman reported a clear image of one of the suspects as he brushed the hair from in front of his eyes. She then recalled several details about his profile, including his having worn a silver earring.”
Cognitive interviewing (Beatty and Willis, 2007; Fisher et al., 1989) is a method of interviewing victims and/or eyewitnesses that helps them remember what they saw at a crime scene. The method draws on the developments in fields of study that investigated how memory retrieval works (Memon and Higham, 1999). The primary purpose of cognitive interviewing is for the interviewer to help the interviewee reconstruct the context of a given situation with as much detail as possible, by asking questions about a range of details, such as environmental conditions, feelings and emotions, smells and sounds, etc. , to help them visualise their experience in as much detail as possible.
Cognitive Interviewing in practice
When I conducted my study of Polish migrants in Scotland and their “English Language Identity” (ELI), it was very important to me to get access to their detailed experiences in the migration context. The study had elements of constructivist grounded theory and, therefore, I really did not know at the time what I would find and how to find it. I wanted the “theory” or the understanding of whether ELI exists and how it is formed to emerge fully from the data I was collecting.
However, after the pilot study to my second round of interviews, it became evident that the structure of the interview, which focused on complex issues surrounding the relationship between the English language and the participants’ sense of self, was problematic and reflected some of my own assumptions about the topic. The participants did not have enough freedom to express their opinions and some of the questions were leading the participants towards the reflections I had ‘hoped’ to hear, posing a threat to the validity of the findings. At the same time, I observed during the interviews that, when the participants were recollecting particular stories and events from the past (as opposed to expressing their opinions on the general theoretical ideas I asked them about), their accounts were much longer, more detailed, felt more ‘natural’ and, as the later analysis revealed, generated data that was not only more detailed, but also more relevant to the research topic.
Based on these observations, and the feedback I collected after the interviews, I adopted an experimental approach to interviewing, by combining elements of ‘narrative interviewing’ and ‘cognitive interviewing’ (narrative interviewing is a technique that allows the interviewees more freedom to elaborate on the topics they find important and relevant than a traditional interview would, as it relies on their narration and retrospective accounts). When asked the first set of questions, regarding their first encounter with the ‘Scottish accent’ (which was one of the themes emerging from the analysis of the first round of interviews), for example, they were asked, and given time to recollect as much detail as possible (including the weather that day, their feelings, the exact place of the event, etc.), about that particular experience. This approach, although initially welcomed with reserve and humour, was found to be effective, by both me and the participants.
Beatty, P. C. & Willis, G. B. (2007). Research synthesis: The practice of cognitive interviewing. Public Opinion Quarterly. 71(2), 287–311.
Fisher, R. P., Geiselman, R. E. & Amador, M. (1989). Field text of the cognitive interview: Enhancing the recollection of actual victims and witnesses of crime. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74(5), 722–727.
George, R and Clifford, B. (1995), ‘The cognitive interview – does it work?’ in G. Davies, et al. (eds.), Psychology, Law and Criminal Justice (New York: de Gruyter), 146-54.
McLeod, S. (2010). Cognitive Interview. Accessed at https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-interview.html
Memon, A. & Higham, P. A. (1999). A review of the cognitive interview. Psychology, Crime & Law, 5, 177–196.