In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Interviewing in Forensic Settings

  • Introduction
  • Background
  • General Overviews
  • Interviewing Adult Eyewitnesses and Victims: The Cognitive Interview
  • Developments in Adult Witness Interviewing
  • Interviewing to Detect Deception
  • Intelligence Interviewing
  • Interviewing Refugees, People Seeking Asylum, and Victims of War Crimes
  • Training Issues in Investigative Interviewing

Psychology Interviewing in Forensic Settings
Lorraine Hope
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0129


Interviews constitute a core activity of the investigative process. Information obtained from victims, witnesses, and suspects in the course of investigative interviews not only provides important investigatory leads but also informs the evidence in subsequent legal proceedings. Well-conducted interviews advance investigations by eliciting high quality and reliable information. Poorly conducted interviews run the risk of eliciting unreliable information, destroying the credibility of a witness or victim, and contaminating the investigative process. Crucially, poor interviewing practice can lead to serious miscarriages of justice. Obtaining high quality reliable information through ethical and effective investigative interviewing is vital to the delivery of justice. The aim of this article is to enable any reader, researchers and practitioners alike, to become cognizant of key topics in the field of investigative interviewing. This is a sizeable and complex research field, spanning laboratory research evaluating the cognitive and social components of memory performance under different encoding and retrieval conditions, through to more applied work examining the performance of specific interview techniques and the detailed analysis of archival data. The task of the interviewer in forensic settings is a challenging one and hinges on the ability of the interviewer to elicit a comprehensive and accurate account. The opening section of this article points readers in the direction of important background literature to inform their understanding of the psychological factors underpinning an interviewee’s ability to provide such an account. General overviews of research and practice in investigative interviewing provide the context for the remainder of the article, which examines witness and suspect interviews separately, highlighting the specific challenges associated with interviews in each category. Deliberately, and reflecting the large body of relevant literature, special attention is devoted to investigative interviews with children and other vulnerable individuals. Extending the usual reach of articles on investigative interviewing, the challenges faced by interviewers in intelligence settings are also examined, as too are the needs of individuals in particular interview contexts, such as refugees and asylum seekers. A consistent theme throughout the article emphasizes the need for high quality training, reflection, and evaluation to ensure ethical and effective interviewing in forensic settings.


In the conduct of both suspect and witness interviews, the task for interviewers is to elicit a comprehensive, accurate, and investigation-relevant account. As such, the basic currency of interviews in forensic settings is memory output. Skilled interviewing demands a sound understanding of memory processes and, critically, some knowledge of the many cognitive, social, and environmental factors that may affect the content and accuracy of a witness or suspect account. Toglia, et al. 2007 provides a comprehensive examination of many of the factors that affect eyewitness memory for events. Bookending eyewitness memory topics, Christianson 2007, an examination of offender memory for violent events, extends to consider the credibility of such accounts and the validity of claims of crime-related amnesia. While some factors affecting witness and suspect statements are present at the encoding or witnessing phase, others are more closely associated with the postevent phase—including the interview context. Loftus 1996 highlights the fallibility of human memory, while studies of suggestibility, such as the classic demonstration Zaragoza and Lane 1994, highlight the dangers of suggestion in the interview context. This research, including the many studies published since on the topic of suggestibility, illustrates the risks inherent at the interface between the interviewer and the interviewee in the forensic setting. In both witness and suspect interviewing contexts, it is imperative the interviewer understands the potential for suggestibility and takes care not to contaminate the account he or she is seeking to elicit. As illustrated in Brainerd and Reyna 2012, a comprehensive review of the reliability of children’s memory, developmental factors are also an important topic for interviewers to engage with, particularly as recent research challenges engrained notions concerning the performance of children in investigative interviews. Finally, it is important for interviewers to consider that an individual’s memory for an incident is not necessarily the same as what he or she chooses to report during an interview. This is an important distinction, and researchers and practitioners alike should strive to understand the ways in which interviewees may be “regulating” their accounts. Pansky, et al. 2005 transfers an important theoretical approach into the eyewitness domain, while Weber and Brewer 2008 illustrates some of the choices witnesses make when deciding what to report. Although still in the early stages, understanding the way in which interviewees strategically regulate their accounts is likely to lead to the development of new techniques and approaches within investigative interviewing in the future.

  • Brainerd, C. J., and V. F. Reyna. 2012. Reliability of children’s testimony in the era of developmental reversals. In Special Issue: Child Witness Research. Edited by K. London and S. J. Ceci. Developmental Review 32.3: 224–267.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.dr.2012.06.008

    A comprehensive and challenging review that addresses the long-standing premise held in many legal circles that children’s memories are less reliable than adult memories. Expanding on the notion of “developmental reversals,” the authors explore real-world contexts that produce age-related increases in false memories (and concurrent net reductions in accuracy), providing both data and a compelling theoretical account of this phenomenon. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Christianson, S. Å., ed. 2007. Offenders’ Memories of Violent Crimes. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    An important and interesting text concerned with memory issues observed among perpetrators of crime. Includes a useful consideration of the theoretical accounts of memory performance in the context of violent crime and an exploration of the ways in which perpetrator memories might be evaluated to detect the authenticity of crime-related amnesia and malingering.

  • Loftus, E. F. 1996. Eyewitness Testimony. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press

    Loftus’s classic and award-winning text. Although the science of eyewitness memory might have moved on since the original publication of this influential book in 1979, the fundamental observations about the fallibility of eye witnesses hold true, and the experiments reported are classics in the field of memory and suggestibility.

  • Pansky, A., A. Koriat, and M. Goldsmith. 2005. Eyewitness recall and testimony. In Psychology and law: An empirical perspective. Edited by N. Brewer and K. Williams, 93–150. New York: Guilford.

    This superb chapter presents an authoritative examination of the components contributing to memory performance. Drawing on the wider theoretical and research literature, the authors introduce the critical notion that individuals determine the type and amount of information reported in interview settings.

  • Toglia, M. P., J. D. Read, D. F. Ross, and R. C. L. Lindsay, eds. 2007. The handbook of eyewitness psychology. Vol. 1, Memory for events. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    This handbook is an invaluable resource. Presents a wide range of topics relating to witness memory, including memory across the life-span. Chapters are written by experts in the field and include associated topics of interest to investigative interviewers, such as false and recovered memories, credibility assessment, interview protocols and false confessions.

  • Weber, N., and N. Brewer. 2008. Eyewitness recall: Regulation of grain size and the role of confidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 14.1: 50–60.

    DOI: 10.1037/1076-898X.14.1.50

    One of the first empirical papers to extend Koriat and Goldsmith’s influential memory model (1996) to the eyewitness domain. Results suggest that individuals can adaptively and selectively make decisions about (i) volunteering or withholding information and (ii) the grain-size of the information they report. This notion of the strategic regulation of memory is important for interviewers to bear in mind when eliciting an account from a witness or suspect. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Zaragoza, M. S., and S. M. Lane. 1994. Source misattributions and the suggestibility of eyewitness memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 20.4: 934–945.

    DOI: 10.1037/0278-7393.20.4.934

    Classic set of studies on the suggestibility of eyewitness memory incorporating the use of source-monitoring tasks to determine the extent to which misleading suggestions become integrated as accurate representations of a witnessed event. Results show that some misled participants came to believe information that had been suggested to them. Interviewers in investigative settings must be sensitive to the possibility that information they inadvertently impart to the witness may be misattributed and wrongly integrated into that witness’s account. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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