What Interviewers Need to Know About Memory


Have you ever told a story only to have someone tell you that you remembered it incorrectly? If so, you probably said something like, “I could have sworn that was what happened!” As I, and my children, get older, I admit that this happens to me more and more. It’s harmless in most circumstances, but dangerous for witnesses who are being interviewed in an investigation of a crime.

Luckily, there are tools and techniques that will help you, the interviewer, ensure that you are getting the most accurate and detailed description of past events. In his session today, “Interviewing Witnesses: The Lifeblood of Fraud Investigations,” Jonathan Davison discussed how memory plays an important role in how witnesses communicate and recall information.

Davison has more than 12 years of investigation and interview experience as a detective with the Greater Manchester Police. He later founded Forensic Interview Solutions (FIS), a collaborative team of international experts specializing in investigative interviewing and delivering training, consultancy and solutions to public and private-sector organizations worldwide.

“Memory does not work like a recording device,” Davison said. “When we are interviewing people, we are looking into memory to see what they can provide us and we have got to know how best we can facilitate that information.”

He encouraged attendees to be cognizant of how memory works to use it in your advantage instead of mistakenly letting it derail an interview. He explained that memory is fragile. “Are we treating someone’s memory like a crime scene or are we trampling all over it?” he said. “We have to treat with care and loving attention. We are asking them to relive or go over an event that may have happened weeks ago, years ago or months ago.”

Ways that fraud investigators can treat memory more like a crime scene is by understanding the stages of memory, acknowledging that we all have an inner editor and recognizing the key problems we face when dealing with memory.

First consider the stages of memory:

  • Stage 1: Encoding: the information a person received

  • Stage 2: Storage: the information a person stores in memory

  • Stage 3: Retrieval: the information a person retrieves at a later time

Next, think about our inner editors that we use when we recall events:

  • We delete or omit some information

  • We integrate or mix with other information

  • We generalize and give non-specific overviews

  • We construct, assume and infer

Finally, prepare for the problems you are up against:

  • Decay: Memory is old, there is no way around it.

  • Retrieval failure: Like my example above, sometimes people are just wrong in what they remember happening.

  • Emotional arousal/stress: In stressful situations, like an interview with law enforcement, investigators or auditors, witnesses can be distracted and agitated.

  • Perceptual factors: Perception is relative and subjective.

  • Reconstruction and suggestibility: People can be influenced by suggestions or a version of reconstruction.

Just knowing the above information helps you have one of the tools you need to elicit the most information possible: knowledge. Using this knowledge about memory, you can then use some of the techniques below to round out your interviews.

  • Teach a witness to talk by giving them an example of the depth of an answer that you want. He said he says, “You are probably wondering the type of depth I will need from you. Let me give you an example.”

  • Use these prompts when asking questions: Tell me, explain to me, describe to me or show me.

  • Use the cognitive PEACE approach: Plan and Prepare; Engage and explain; Account, clarification and challenge; Closure; Evaluate

  • Use a non-judgmental approach and build rapport.

Davison brought up the word “rapport” many times throughout his presentation. He said that an interview in which rapport has been appropriately developed is natural and carries the participants along with it in a relaxed manner. “We want to listen more than we are talking,” he said. “It’s about building that rapport with somebody to be comfortable with you to be able to speak to you. The more you are able to build rapport with someone, the better that interview is going to be.”