Mark Rhys Kebbell (1996) Enhancing the Practicality of the Cognitive. Psycoloquy: 7(16) Witness Memory (3)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 7(16): Enhancing the Practicality of the Cognitive

Commentary on Memon & Stevenage on Witness-Memory

Mark Rhys Kebbell
Department of Psychology
Bolton Institute
Deane Road
Bolton BL3 5AB
United Kingdom


Graham Francis Wagstaff
Department of Psychology
University of Liverpool
Liverpool L69 3BX
United Kingdom


Memon & Stevenage (1996) have outlined a number of mainly theoretical issues that concern the cognitive interview. We argue here that we must also consider the practicality of applying the cognitive interview in forensic situations.


Cognitive interview, errors, eyewitness memory, facilitated recall, police procedures, questioning, recovered memories, structured interview.


1. Memon & Stevenage (1996) raise a number of theoretical and methodological issues with regard to future research into the cognitive interview. In general we agree with the points that they make, and we particularly endorse the idea that research should be conducted into the efficacy of the various components of the cognitive interview. However, the cognitive interview was devised as a practical, forensic tool. Thus, we believe that considerations associated with the practical application of the cognitive interview in real forensic situations should also be given considerable emphasis in future research. In addition, as Memon & Stevenage point out, there now seem to be considerable variations in what different researchers call a "cognitive interview" and a "standard interview". We would like to take the opportunity of this commentary to raise these issues.


2. There seems little doubt that many officers believe the cognitive interview to be a useful technique in real-police investigations. However, two overlapping problems are apparent: 1) officers report that the technique requires more time than is often available to them; and 2) officers do not use the technique in the way that it is described by Fisher and Geiselman (e.g., Fisher & Geiselman, 1992).

3. Informal discussions with police officers trained in the cognitive interview suggest that, in their experience, they often do not have sufficient time to conduct a cognitive interview (Croft, 1995; see also Fisher, Geiselman & Amador, 1989). Unfortunately, in many real-life situations interviewers cannot spend much time interviewing eyewitnesses. For example, if an officer at a crime scene is confronted with a number of witnesses who require interviewing, he or she must interview each witness quickly to ensure that all are interviewed. If too much time is spent interviewing each witness, the officer risks other potentially valuable witnesses leaving the crime scene. Another situation that often necessitates a brief interview, is when a police officer has already been given another crime to deal with after the current one, and so has to rapidly respond to that request. Moreover, in the case of minor crimes, police officers often feel that there is little point in using a cognitive interview to obtain extra information as there are frequently not enough resources to follow up leads anyway.

4. As a result, according to our own interviews with the police, many officers say that they do not use the cognitive interview in such situations; instead they prefer to use deliberate strategies aimed to curtail eyewitness's reports (i.e., to limit an eyewitness's report to the minimum amount of information the officer deems necessary); such strategies include frequent interruptions of the eyewitnesses and the use of a question and answer-format. Interestingly, these are some of the techniques identified by Fisher, Geiselman and Raymond (1987) as problems associated with "standard" police interviews. However, our interview data suggest that, in practical situations, some of the alleged "problems" associated with "standard" police interviews may not be as serious as Fisher et al. suggest.

5. Nevertheless, for specific situations the cognitive interview may be the most appropriate method. For example, when a serious crime has been committed the police usually allocate more resources, especially time. In such instances it may be more appropriate to use the cognitive interview to generate more information even though it may take longer.

6. Discussions we have had with officers who have tried to use the cognitive interview in the field, have revealed a number of other problems. Perhaps one of the most serious is that many officers find it difficult to communicate the mnemonic instructions to witnesses. This in turn means that witnesses do not understand what is required of them and react in a negative manner towards the officers. Officers become uncomfortable in these situations and consequently stop using the mnemonic instructions in future interviews. Similar problems have been reported by other researchers; that is, in the field, officers often do not use the cognitive interview mnemonics at all, or use only one or two of them (see George, 1991; see also Memon, Holley, Milne, Kohnken & Bull, 1994). It is possible that these problems may be overcome by suitable training.

7. Practical experience with the cognitive interview thus suggests a number of avenues for future research. Research should be undertaken to evaluate the cognitive interview in situations in which time is at a premium. If it is found to be impractical in such situations, and cannot be modified, then it is clearly a limited technique that can only be used effectively in certain specific situations, and the police should be informed of this. However, if it is found to require modification, and can be modified such that it is more applicable to a range of interviewing situations then research could usefully investigate how this can be achieved. Here the work by Memon et al. could be very useful in isolating which parts of the cognitive interview are, and are not, important for memory enhancement. Such research could suggest ways of producing a more efficient, forensically useful, technique that may take less time to conduct than a full cognitive interview. Furthermore, future research might also investigate ways of making the mnemonic techniques easier for the police to apply in the field. In this way it may be possible to make considerable improvements to the practical application of the cognitive interview without extensive research relating to complex psychological theories.


8. However, as pointed out earlier, when police officers use the cognitive interview in the field it may be a very different procedure to that described by Fisher and Geiselman (1992). This raises the issue of what exactly is a cognitive interview?

9. One of the fundamental problems with evaluating the cognitive interview in its most recent forms is that it is no longer strictly a unitary "procedure"; rather, it is a somewhat amorphous collection of techniques. Currently a number of interview techniques are described as cognitive interview techniques. For example, the "cognitive interview" in which the Merseyside Police (UK) and the Thames Valley Police (UK) are trained is virtually the same as the technique described by Fisher and Geiselman (1992), though the Thames Valley Police do not use the "change perspectives" mnemonic; and in George's (1991) study, police officers who described themselves as using "cognitive interviews" tended to use only the "reinstate context" and "report all" mnemonic. However, the cognitive interview that Fisher is currently describing places far more emphasis on social processes (Fisher, personal communication). If we accept this approach, then what Memon et al. (1994) term a "structured interview" might be better described as a "cognitive interview". As an added complication, there is forensic hypnosis; typically this is very similar to the enhanced cognitive interview (Fisher, Geiselman & Amador, 1989; Kebbell & Wagstaff, in press; Wagstaff, 1982). Does this mean that hypnosis it is, in fact, a cognitive interview too? It would now seem that any interview that attempts to overcome what are seen to be deficiencies in "standard" interviewing procedures could be termed "cognitive". Consequently, in future research, the particular techniques used in any interview procedure labelled as "cognitive" must be made quite clear.

10. Finally, there also seems to be a problem in deciding with what sort of procedure a cognitive interview should be compared. If the purpose of an investigation is to decide whether a given interview technique is better than a "standard" police interview in practical situations, then a "standard" police procedure should be used. For example, Memon's structured interview is very different from a "standard" police interview (see Fisher et al., 1987; George, 1991); thus, a comparison of a "cognitive interview" with her structured interview, although potentially useful, tells us little about the more pressing issue of whether the cognitive interview is better than a standard police interview. However, it is not always clear what form a "standard" police interview takes, so, once again, any research should include a detailed description of what is meant by a "standard interview".


11. In sum, we have argued here that future research into the cognitive interview should consider the following issues with regard to the practical application of cognitive interview procedures. Researchers should consider how cognitive interview techniques can usefully be applied in the field when resources, especially time, are limited; the extent to which the police have the skills to use these techniques; and how best to train them in such skills. Furthermore, if the aim of a study is to determine the practical effectiveness of a technique, then research should include, as a comparison, the procedure that the police would otherwise have used as an interview technique, and a detailed description of the particular cognitive interview and the comparison interviews employed.


Croft, S. (1995). Helping victims to remember. Police, 28, 13-14.

Fisher, R.P. & Geiselman, R.E. (1992). Memory enhancing techniques for investigative interviewing: The cognitive interview. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.

Fisher, R.P., Geiselman, R.E. & Amador, M. (1989). Field Test of the Cognitive Interview: Enhancing the Recollection of Actual Victims and Witnesses of Crime. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 722-727.

Fisher, R.P., Geiselman, R.E. & Raymond, D.S. (1987). Critical Analysis of Police Interview Techniques. Journal of Police Science & Administration, 15, 177-185.

George, R. (1991). A field and experimental evaluation of three methods of interviewing witnesses and victims of crime. Unpublished Masters Thesis, Polytechnic of East London, London, UK.

Kebbell, M.R. & Wagstaff, G.F. (in press). The cognitive interview: An evaluation of its forensic effectiveness. In D.V. Canter (Ed). Investigative Psychology.

Memon, A., Holley, A., Milne, R, Kohnken, G. & Bull, R. (1994). Towards understanding the effects of interviewer training in evaluating the cognitive interview. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 8, 641-659.

Memon, A. & Stevenage, S. (1996). Interviewing Witnesses: What Works and What Doesn't? PSYCOLOQUY 7(6) witness-memory.1.memon.

Wagstaff, G.F. (1982). Recall of witnesses under hypnosis. Journal of the Forensic Science Society, 22, 33-39.

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