Aug 19 2014

The Reid Technique of Investigation

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.

26 responses so far

26 thoughts on “The Reid Technique of Investigation”

  1. BillyJoe7 says:

    “lying is a larger cognitive load then telling the truth”

    That’s a bit more compact than my version:
    There is only one way to tell the truth, but a thousand ways to tell a lie, and it’s pretty hard to remember which lie you told last time.

  2. tmac57 says:

    I have always had some serious problems with the premise of the Reid technique,and welcome newer approaches,but the PEACE method,as described,raises a question too. If we reconstruct our memories rather than play them back flawlessly,and studies have shown that repeated reconstruction introduces false narratives,then wouldn’t this method actually cause inconsistencies that might then be misconstrued as intention to deceive?

  3. Bruce says:


    I think the premise is that being consistent when creating a construct from scratch is harder than being consistent with a reconstruction of events already weaved into the narrative of actual events.

    Ultimately I don’t think any system of interrogation is going to be perfect though.

  4. tmac – you are correct, but as long as the goal of the interview is not to detect deception, but to construct what happened, that won’t be a problem. This is similar to the technique I use taking a medical history. I just want to know the story. I am not interested in intention. You can ask questions to pick apart what is consistent, what is consistent with recorded facts, and then piece together the real story, filtering out errors (whether errors of memory or deliberate deception, it does not matter).

  5. tmac57 says:

    That’s interesting,and now I want to learn more about the PEACE technique. I guess the critical bit is that those who use this method must also be well educated about the current state of our understanding of the frailties of memory,and the misuse of interrogation,as well as the pitfalls of their own cognitive biases. A tall order for sure. Humans gonna be humans… 🙁

  6. Bruce says:

    The fact is we don’t need any of these techniques… Just give them the Homeopathic Truth serum Bhull Shitta (made from natural(TM) bovine excrement). You’ll get the truth every time!

  7. Bronze Dog says:

    The [Reid] 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 naivete behind that assumption is why innocent people have so much to fear. Throw in the assumption that stress means lying, and I’d expect a nasty feedback loop.

    The [PEACE] 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.

    “The truth is just an excuse for a lack of imagination.” -Elim Garak

    I worry it might unintentionally manipulate a subject’s memory, but it still sounds much better than the Reid technique. The premise also seems more plausible to me, since I’d imagine reconstructing a memory is less burdensome than inventing a lie and making sure that lie is both plausible and non-incriminating.

  8. Kawarthajon says:

    Bruce: “Just give them the Homeopathic Truth serum Bhull Shitta (made from natural(TM) bovine excrement). You’ll get the truth every time!”

    Actually, studies have shown that 60% of the time, it works every time.

  9. Kawarthajon says:

    The Reid technique has been used in some very high profile cases in Canada by a much lauded police officer, OPP Det. Sgt. Jim Smyth. He apparently used the technique to get confessions from Colonel Russel Williams, the famous rapist/murdered who rubbed shoulders with Canadian elites. He also got confessions from other high-profile murderers in Canada. Here’s an article about him and the technique at work:

  10. jsterritt says:

    In fairness, Columbo was pretty manipulative: he fostered a false sense of innocence to put suspects at ease, then used “just one more question” to play them like a fish on the line. That said, even a fake assumption of innocence is better than a presumption of guilt. And Columbo never coerced a confession: he manipulated the situation, not his interrogee. Columbo had style.

    The PEACE method has the advantage in another way over the Reid method: it can be taught to anyone. PEACE is more a procedure or manual for conducting interrogation. It requires no special, intuitive cop with a particular knack for getting in the heads of interrogees. The final ‘E’ (for evaluate) suggests careful review, even oversight. These are good things.

    The presumption of guilt in policing has sunk to new lows. Unfair and illegal practices are institutionalized with known biases against racial minorities. There is too much sensitivity, not nearly enough specificity — this creates an appalling number of false positives. Coercing a confession by any means should render the confession inadmissible. Coercing a false confession should be a fireable offense, not a laudable one — no matter what the TV says.

  11. tmac57 says:

    It seems like defenders of the Reid technique are employing a ‘no true Scotsman’ defense by saying that some interrogators are employing inappropriate methods not endorsed by the company.
    That may well be true,but it doesn’t address the core criticisms of the idea that anxiety and certain behaviors point to the likely guilt of a suspect.
    Also,the protocol for the use of the Reid technique says that it should not be used unless there is a reasonably certainty that the suspect is involved (read guilty of) the crime being investigated,so right off the bat,the presumption of (possible) innocence is out the window. The pressure to solve a crime and confirmation bias can easily lead to a railroading of a suspect in such a scenario in my opinion.

  12. tmac57 says:

    By the way,the NPR Fresh Air story “Beyond Good Cop/Bad Cop: A Look At Real-Life Interrogations” that Steve linked to above is well worth listening to, since the reporter was trained in both techniques as part of his research.

  13. Willibrord says:

    Very interesting post. The fact that an innocent person can still be convicted despite a bogus confession is chilling, but all too real.

    But for folks who are interested in seeing the Reid process in action, there is a CBC Fifth Estate documentary about the Russel Williams case that Kawarthajon mentions above. Well worth checking out. It’s really neat how the interrogator teases him out. (And they found so much evidence in the guy’s house etc. that there is no doubt about his guilt, happily.)

  14. Sylak says:

    It seems I’m not the only one who saw True detective lately, it is awesome. Mccaughey’s characters seem to use that technique a lot.

    Innocent peoples confessing crimes they did not do, yeah that’s always a bad thing. Like with torture. You can beat anything out of most people that’s not on the same topic, but I’m against death penalty for lots of reason, but this is the main one. it is impossible to be always 100% sure

  15. Sylak says:

    @jsterrit : “Columbo had style” Yes He did, My father got my hooked on this show when i was young, He listen to it a lot, so we started enjoy it as a familly fun time! A local tv here were playing( a french version of course) couple of episodes each afternoon, and week nights, I watched them all. It’s been years now since i saw a episode.

    After BBC sherlock, the old Columbo is my second favourite investigation shows, In third place is Wallander ( the original swedish, not the ones with the brit guy).

  16. Skeptiverse says:

    Some Australian authorities use the PEACE method as well (Not sure about the police). I currently work for one of these authorities and have used the method for interviewing witnesses.

    One of the main reasons i like the method is that it does not require the interviewer to be experienced in order for it to be successful in gathering information.

    The main thrust of the training we received on the PEACE method is asking open questions which require the interviewee to insert most of the information rather than closed questions which give the interviewee only a small number of answers to pick from. In my experience given the opportunity to speak openly people tend to give out a lot more information. In my organisation the PEACE method is largely used to gather evidence and information not necessarily to interview suspects themselves.

  17. DanDanNoodles says:

    “Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate”

    Sorry, interesting article, but this tripped my internal grammarian teeth grinder. If you (the generic “you”, Steven, I know you didn’t create the acronym) are going to make a list, the elements of the list need to be internally consistent; mixing nouns and verbs just looks sloppy and makes descriptions awkward. The double P at the start is also annoying — “prepare” and “plan” are synonyms! Why have both? The double E is unnecessary, too. All in the service of wrenching it so the acronym is a clever wordplay.

    The acronym should be: “Prepare, Explain, Ask, Close, Evaluate”. All verbs, and all well-fitted to the process.

  18. polyesterpam says:

    I applaud the criticism of Reid outlined in this post. The study discussed here is indeed highly problematic. However, I am not convinced that the particular criticism raised about this study is entirely on point. Steven writes: “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.”

    This seems to me to boil down to a concern with the artificiality of the laboratory setting. This is, interestingly, one of the staple arguments touted by Reid to shoot down the robust finding that their technique is impotent when it comes to lie detection. In fact, contrary to their claim, and to naive reasoning in general, lie detection accuracy rates in the lab are not lower than those observed in the field (see here for a recent meta-analysis:

    The study discussed here is without a doubt flawed, probably fatally so. However, my main concern is not that the study was conducted in a relatively low-stake setting. The cause of these anomalous hit rates is likely due to the fact that one single interviewer (formerly affiliated with Reid, btw) conducted all the interviews. For those who have any familiarity with laboratory research on lie detection, the problem with this is obvious. For those that don’t, here’s the catch. If you interview a sufficient number of people (half of whom are lying and half of whom are telling the truth about the same event – the last bit is key), it soon starts becoming quite obvious what the true story is. Imagine that five people provide roughly the very same account (“X came into the room where I was sitting and asked me Y, then X left”), while five others give statements that totally deviate from this, it is a reasonable inference that the first five are telling the truth (as well as all the subsequent interviewees who provide this account), while any other statement is deceptive. In other words, having one interviewer conduct multiple interviews about a single event generates artificial cues to truth and deception that would rarely – if ever – be present in real life.

    More broadly speaking, the time is ripe for American law enforcement to move away from Reid. There are, as Steven points out, alternatives that do not suffer from the problems of Reid.

  19. Fair Persuasion says:

    Maybe the psychological study simply shows that students know when they participate in a scam experiment for money. By extension of this thought, paid police may not be careful about who they investigate just as long as they have someone to target for the crime. A police sense of justice is not the same for an attorney. The training is not the same. For the legal professionals, justice must be blind and evidence is weighed.

  20. grabula says:

    @Fair Persuasion

    “A police sense of justice is not the same for an attorney.”

    What’s your rationale for this statement?

  21. jayarava says:

    This is science as entertainment. It tells us nothing about the real world, but provides the basic material for science journalism. I blame the widespread application of Game Theory to psychology. The premise is that if you put people in a hypothetical situation, no matter how contrived and unnatural, that their responses tell you something universal about human behaviour.

    Anyway coercion to cheat would constitute entrapment. Nothing those people say to incriminate themselves would stand.

  22. BillyJoe7 says:


    A Beatles fan?

    Well you should see Polythene Pam
    She’s so good-looking but she looks like a man
    Well you should see her in drag dressed in her polythene bag
    Yes you should see Polythene Pam
    Yeah yeah yeah

    Get a dose of her in jackboots and kilt
    She’s killer-diller when she’s dressed to the hilt
    She’s the kind of a girl that makes -THE NEWS OF THE WORLD- Yes
    you could say she was attractively built
    Yeah yeah yeah

    There was also Molly, Martha, Michelle, Prudence, Julia, Lucy, Sadie, Eleanor, Rita and probably many more. Polytheneester Pam seems a strange choice.


  23. faltenin says:

    And of course the PEACE technique doesn’t make for good TV these days: who wants to watch a show with the smart cop circling back a dozen times for hours?

    Let’s not underestimate the impact of the role models that are given to the investigators, when TV cops will also do anything to get a confession…

  24. Fair Persuasion says:

    @grabula The defined role of a police officer is enforcement, while the role of the attorney is adjudication.

  25. grabula says:

    @Fair Persuasion

    Their roles in the judicial system are different but the end goal is the same – to attempt to catch people doing bad things and apply appropriate punishment. I agree with your point that the training is not the same, and it’s something as an MP I know from experience – training for police officers of any kind is sorely lacking and the hiring process isn’t always vetting these individuals the way they should. But the end result has to be expected if you offer low pay for highly dangerous jobs.

  26. GolfTango says:

    I remain unconvinced about the reality of flying saucers. Is Mr. Novella critical of the Reid technique, because of the presumption of guilt? If so, how can we skeptics justify, PRE SUMING that all UFO
    witnesses are “guilty” fantasists or mispercievers?

    Extremely improbable as it may be, supposing a flying saucer witness confessed to fantasy
    or misperception, not because they didn’t see a real saucer, but in order to take the pressure off?

    If a saucer witness sticks to their story for three years, and then “confesses”, why do we believe
    the confession in ten seconds flat?

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