Examining the Cognitive Interview Model

An investigation into alleged child abuse is an incredibly challenging tightrope walk. Law enforcement detectives and investigating child protective services social workers and forensic interviewers must follow a rigorous set of standards to ensure that flawless evidence is presented.

Everything that happens while the alleged transgression is investigated must be performed with the utmost precision. This notion includes the gathering of physical evidence as well as witness/victim testimony.

If something like ensuring DNA maintains its integrity has many procedural requirements, so should the interviewing of a young child.

Sloppy or misguided techniques used while interviewing a child can lead to bad evidence.

Memories can lead us astray as is. Considering the cognitive gaps in children, obtaining accurate information from a grade schooler's memory requires a unique and intensive approach by the individual conducting the interview of a child.

Let's explore this notion a bit further:

What is a Cognitive Interview?

Before getting into the meat of this topic, it's essential to give you a working definition of the cognitive interview (CI) process.

Cognitive interviews are done with alleged victims to gather what they remember about an alleged act of abuse. The Cognitive Interview model's focus is on four methods of memory retrieval and making the interviewee aware of all the events that may have transpired. See Karen Saywitz, Edward Geiselman, Gail Bornstein. Effects of Cognitive Interviewing and Practice on Children's Recall Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology 1992, Vol. 77, No. 5, 744-756.

The above-cited paper makes two critical points:

  1. Present results show that even experienced investigators don't apply the best techniques when interviewing children.
  2. The Cognitive Interview model has proven integral in developing a more effective interview process for children.

“The theoretical considerations that underlie the questioning techniques…are based on two principles of memory. First, a memory is composed of several features and the effectiveness of a memory-jogging technique is related to the extent of its feature overlap with the memory. Second, there may be several retrieval paths to a memory for an event, so that information not accessible with one memory-jogging technique may be accessible with a different cue.” (citations omitted)

Thus, the purpose and goal of the Cognitive Interview model is to help the child being interviewed to access as many correct memories as possible, without conjuring false memories.

Further Background into the CI Model

In the journal article cited above, it's pointed out that, compared to older children and adults, young children's reports are less complete. However, that doesn't mean they aren't as accurate.

It's not implausible or unlikely to extract detailed information from a younger child. If they receive specific questions, these children can be more forthcoming with intricate details.

The issue with such questions is that they don't necessarily generate accurate information. Some techniques encourage children to speak, but in a suggestible manner.

A proper interviewing technique, such as cognitive interviewing, is shown to maximize the completeness of the child's report's responses to the interviewer’s questions while minimizing errors. The need to use less reliable techniques, such as leading questions, is mitigated through this superior interview method.

While other methods are more obstructive and less objective, cognitive interviewers act as neutral memory guides.

Why Else Does the CI Model Work Better with Children?

Cognitive interviews are pinpoint precise in their approach—more focused on facts than they are on emotions.

Therefore, the Cognitive Interview method consists of expert memory retrieval strategies and cues. There's also a unique strategic approach to how information is organized.

In short, children have proven able to apply techniques provided by adults during memory retrieval that they couldn’t by themselves.

One example is how imagery instructions enhance the recall performance of children. Also, providing guidance on what is valuable in the forensic sense gives these children perspective when providing relevant information.

Results Suggest the Effectiveness of the CI Model

Results cited in “Effects of Cognitive Interviewing and Practice on Children's Recall Performance” suggest that cognitive interviewing techniques are superior with children:

“The results showed that questioning techniques based on principles from cognitive psychology significantly increased the number of correct facts recalled by both 7- to 8-year-olds and 10- to 11-year-olds over that gained with standard interview procedures and without affecting the number of incorrect items generated.” Positive results were also found for children 8- to 9-year-olds and 11- to 12-year-olds.

Upon doing more research on the topic, the CI approach is more accurate with everyone, not only young children. In one study, cognitive interviews recalled 41.2 facts, on average, compared to 38.0 for hypnosis and 29.4 for standard questions.

What Techniques Are Used During Cognitive Interviews?

According to SimplyPsychology, these are the four techniques regularly applied when using the Cognitive Interview questioning model:

  • Mental reinstatement of environmental and personal contexts
  • Reporting the event from different perspectives
  • Describing the event in several orders
  • In-depth reporting

There are many forensic interviewing techniques used all over the country. This is just one of the methods, and it appears to have positive evidentiary results.