Criminal Justice

The Best Way to Interrogate: Think Columbo

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New research shows that police interrogating suspects would do better to focus on what people say rather than how they act.

The traditional wisdom is that liars avert their eyes and that guilty people fidget and sweat when being questioned. But new research says these behaviors are no different between people who lie and those telling the truth, the New York Times reports. There are small fleeting changes in expression when people ar lying, but researchers aren’t sure how useful it would be to analyze them.

Instead researchers are suggesting a better method is to ratchet down confrontational styles and focus on gathering information. Ray Bull, a professor of forensic psychology at the University of Leicester, has reviewed scores of interrogation tapes. He told the Times that British police now use an investigative interviewing technique, rather than an interrogation style of questioning, and there are no fewer confessions and no major miscarriages of justice from false confessions.

“These interviews sound much more like a chat in a bar,” Bull told the Times. “It’s a lot like the old Columbo show, you know, where he pretends to be an idiot but he’s gathered a lot of evidence.”

Kevin Colwell, a psychologist at Southern Connecticut State University, told the Times that those who lie often prepare a script that doesn’t have much detail. He recommends an interview technique in which the person being questioned has to talk about the event more than once, adding details in retelling the event about things such as sounds and smells. The person is also are asked to recall the event in reverse. Those who tell the truth tend to add 20 percent to 30 percent more external detail than do those who are lying, Colwell said.

Those who are adept at lying may start to feel more strain if the interviewer introduces evidence throughout the questioning that has been previously uncovered. “Detective Columbo, it turns out, was not just made for TV,” the story says.

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