Cognitive interviewing

I’m back! I had to take a bit of time off blogging as data collection for my PhD took over, but that’s all done and I just need to focus on the (quite large) task of analysing everything.

I’ve heard a few references to cognitive interviewing recently, however it wasn’t something which I knew much about. So I did some research.. and this is what I found.

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Eyewitness testimony

We know already that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable and can be influenced by a variety of outside variables.  For example, how you ask the question matters: including leading information in the question is more likely to give a desired response. This has been captured neatly by Elizabeth Loftus, who’s famous experiment found that eyewitnesses gave higher estimates as to the speed a car was travelling when asked how fast it was going when it “smashed” into the other car, as opposed to how fast it was going when it “hit” the other car. This shows the importance of a good interviewing technique when questioning eyewitnesses in order to minimise bias from outside sources.

If you’re interested in eyewitness testimony and want to find out more, I’ve written a previous post about it here.

So what is cognitive interviewing?

Cognitive interviewing is based on two principles of cognitive psychology: 1) We remember best in an environment which is similar to the one in which the original learning took place*, and 2) Memories are not like videos of the original event, instead a memory trace is fluid, with different aspects remembered on different occasions.

*Psychology research has shown that we are better at remembering something when we recall it in the same context it was learnt – e.g. the famous memory recall experiment by Godden & Baddeley (1975) where divers were better at remembering words if they recalled them in the same environment as they were learned (on land vs under water).

This led to the 4 main principles of cognitive interviewing (Geiselman, 1984):

  1. Interviewees are encouraged to report every detail they can remember, even if it doesn’t initially seem relevant.
  2. Both internal (the individual) and external (the setting) contexts should be as similar as possible to when the event took place.
  3. The timeline of events is reported in different orders e.g. chronologically forwards, then backwards.
  4. Interviewees recall the event from the perspective of someone else present.

Does it work?

Two meta-analyses have been conducted, combining results from all studies from 1984 to 2009 (Köhnken et al, 1999; Memon et al, 2010). They found that cognitive interviewing results in a significant increase in correct details identified when compared to standard interviewing techniques results. Interestingly, cognitive interviewing also resulted in a smaller, but still significant increase in the number of incorrect details reported. The authors hypothesise that this could be corrected by improving the initial cognitive interview technique e.g. by asking participants not to guess if they don’t know the answer to a question.

The Enhanced Cognitive Interview

Fischer & Geiselman (1992) went on to make some improvements to the original cognitive interview framework, to include items such as establishing rapport, creating trust between the interviewee and interviewer to reduce anxiety, explaining the aims of the interview, focused recall, and moving control of the interview to the interviewee. These aspects reinforce the importance of taking into account the social setting and communication between the interviewer and interviewee.

For example, handing over control to the witness by saying ‘I’m here to help, you’re the one with the valuable information, take your time, stop when you need to’ should ensure that the interviewee is comfortable enough to talk about the event (Paulo et al, 2013).

A useful step by step guide for anyone interested in finding out more about the details of enhanced cognitive interviewing has been published by Milne (2004).



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

Geiselman, R.E., 1984. Enhancement of eyewitness memory: An empirical evaluation of the cognitive interview. Journal of Police Science & Administration.

Godden, D.R. and Baddeley, A.D., 1975. Context‐dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. British Journal of psychology66(3), pp.325-331.

Köhnken, G., Milne, R., Memon, A. and Bull, R., 1999. The cognitive interview: A meta-analysis. Psychology, Crime and Law5(1-2), pp.3-27.

Memon, A., Meissner, C.A. and Fraser, J., 2010. The Cognitive Interview: A meta-analytic review and study space analysis of the past 25 years. Psychology, public policy, and law16(4), p.340.

Milne, R., 2004. The enhanced cognitive interview: A step-by-step guide. Manual de treinamento em Entrevista Cognitiva. Portsmouth.

Paulo, R.M., Albuquerque, P.B. and Bull, R., 2013. The enhanced cognitive interview: Towards a better use and understanding of this procedure. International Journal of Police Science & Management15(3), pp.190-199.