Aug 19 2014
If you like crime dramas, you have probably seen this countless times. The officer interrogating a suspect chums up to them, says they understand, and then offers them a face-saving version of guilt to which they can confess. It’s compelling drama.
What is being depicted is known as the Reid Technique, developed by John Reid in the 1950s. This technique remains popular, but is also highly controversial.
A recent study, however, claims 100% accuracy using the Reid technique to detect deception in 33 interviews. That is very impressive, but raises some red flags. The study also claims 97.8% accuracy is a second trial of experts interrogating suspects, and 93.6% accuracy when students viewed tapes of the interrogations in order to determine guilt.
The primary reason I don’t find the results compelling is that the psychological study may not be a good analog of real-life situations. The suspects were students who were participating in a fake psychological study and were cajoled into cheating by a confederate in order to obtain a monetary reward that was part of the fake study. The interviews were also fairly brief, 3-17 minutes.
It seems that this setup would minimize both false-positive and false-negative results. The students are hardly hardened criminals, and the setup is artificial. This might lower barriers to giving away guilt. Also, one of the criticisms of the Reid Technique is that it can pressure suspects into false confession, but those pressures were not present in the study.
The essence of the Reid technique is to interrogate the suspect with the presumption that they are guilty. The goal is to make them feel socially comfortable with confession – so the goal is to obtain a confession. Part of the technique is to offer the suspect a choice between two scenarios, one much worse than the other, but both involving guilt. If they admit to the lesser narrative, they are still admitting their guilt. The technique is deliberately manipulative, and is based on the assumption that an innocent person cannot be manipulated into confessing a crime they didn’t commit.
The primary criticism of the technique is that it can pressure people into false confessions. Interrogations can sometimes last for hours, and suspects might feel as if the only way to end the interrogation is to confess. They might naively believe that if they did not commit the crime the system will eventually find them innocent despite their confession. Therefore they confess as a way out of their current predicament.
The further problem here is that confessions tend to trump all other aspects of the case. Even hard evidence can be interpreted in order to be consistent with the confession, which people find very compelling.
In fact, Reid’s most famous case, and the one that established his fame, was later found to be in error - the 1955 case of Darrel Parker, who was convicted of killing his wife based upon a confession obtained by Reid himself, although Parker always maintained his innocence. Years later Wesley Peery, a career criminal, confessed to killing Parker’s wife. Parker was just recently fully exonerated of his guilt.
Critics of the Reid technique also point out that its main assumption, that guilty people will act anxious, is simply not true. Scientific research over the years has found little relationship between acting anxious and actual guilt. Some people can lie without anxiety, and others will be very anxious because of the accusation, even if they are innocent. This is the same reason that polygraphs are not reliable.
As with any test, it comes down to sensitivity and specificity. What is the probability of detecting someone who is guilty vs the probability of a false positive – believing someone who is innocent to be guilty? In a justice system based on the presumption of innocence, it is generally accepted that the primary goal is to minimize false positives, even if that means tolerating some false negatives.
The Reid technique, however, is the opposite. It seems to favor minimizing false negatives while tolerating some false positives.
There is an alternate technique that appears to be gaining popularity called “PEACE” (Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate). This technique is currently used in England, Newfoundland, Wales, Denmark and New Zealand.
The technique involves questioning the suspect but not trying to manipulate them or obtain a confession. Rather, it is based on the premise that lying is a larger cognitive load then telling the truth. If you keep circling back asking for more and more details, eventually the house of cards will collapse.
One article likens the Reid Technique to Starsky and Hutch, and the PEACE technique to Columbo – “Sorry, I hate to bother you, I just have one more question…”
It also seems to me that the PEACE technique is more analytical, while the Reid technique is more intuitive. With the PEACE technique the interrogator is looking for internal consistency and consistency with corroborating facts. The Reid Technique, on the other hand, relies upon picking up anxious cues and questionable assumptions about human psychology. Intuition is more susceptible to confirmation bias and other biases. The analytical approach is also subject to bias, but at least there is an ultimate appeal to objective facts.
In any case, the stakes are fairly high and therefore it is essential that researchers continue to evaluate different interrogation techniques.
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