16th Warwick International Post-Graduate Conference in Applied Linguistics: Summary – Session 1, PCE 25th June: The cognitive interview and critical incidents (Dr. Keith Richards)

Dr. Richards has very kindly given me permission to post this summary, produced from the notes I took during the presentation he gave on the 25th June at the University of Warwick:

Pre-Conference Event Session 1

Title: The cognitive interview and critical incidents

Speaker: Dr. Keith Richards, Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick

KR said he was going to start with a problem. Then talk through looking at and responding to this particular challenge, using the cognitive interview.

The aim of the talk is exploring what it can do, seeing what happens when it is tried out and discovering some interesting things. Perhaps the cognitive interview could provide a useful response to what is a challenging problem.

(Looking at an extract from an interview, on a handout)

Problem: the idea of what a story is (as in definition) – doesn’t fit with Labov’s narrative structure. What we see here is a reflection on a story: it has already been resolved. So there is no climax, it is quite vague. The picture you get is a selection of observations about things, not a story.

However, critical incidents are really important. A bad experience can change the whole perspective on a situation. The challenge is: how best to deal with critical incidents? Cognitive interviews are one response.

KR explained that we would look at the following:

  • The nature of narrative
  • Interview options
  • Cognitive interview techniques
  • Memory and emotion
  • An illustration
  • Further reading
  • The nature of narrative

One of the aims of delving in to critical incidents is to elicit a narrative/story

Stories are powerful; they help us make sense of our lives and experiences. This means we tend to create stories that fit into our life stories. Stories are framed, they have themes, and they fit into a bigger picture. However to get into the experience of a moment, a story may not be the best way to get at it. Why? Because you only get a reflection fitted into a bigger picture. People have two stories: the sacred story (e.g. how I became a doctor) and underneath the mundane, every day stories that have to be elicited in different ways because they are not normally told. (MacLure, M. (1993). Arguing for Your Self: identity as an organising principle in teachers’ jobs and lives. British Educational Research Journal, 19(4): 311–322.)

Interview options

When the police want a statement of what someone saw, they have a special process for eliciting that. They use the cognitive interview: original one used for memory and witnesses.

Definition of cognitive interview: method of eliciting experiential accounts that is rooted in cognitive psychology. Aims to use a variety of techniques to stimulate detailed recall of the event and its temporal, material and affective dimensions.

This does not apply to police interrogations! That’s different. Why? Because, a police interrogation and a witness interview serve different purposes and require different styles of interview.

There are different options for eliciting witness statements:

  • Standard (anything but standard…)
  • guided memory (step by step and probe for descriptions of context and emotions)
  • structured (build rapport; allow narrative to develop; interrupt as little as possible)
  • hypnosis (has proved unreliable)
  • cognitive interview

Principles of cognitive interviews:

  • We have limited cognitive processing resources – therefore, don’t invite the respondent to say a lot at one, focus on single tasks.
  • Witness compatible questioning – you need to adapt your style and questions to the respondent (so, an interviewer may say virtually nothing, only back-channeling, or there may be bursts of the interviewer speaking a lot)
  • Context reinstatement: stimulate physical, cognitive and emotional aspects – one might trigger another aspect of memory.
  • Multisensory coding – going for sounds, smells etc.

The social dynamics are the same as for other interviews. In terms of communication, you need to elicit extensive answers, where the respondent reports everything, leaving nothing out. You can do this by using code compatible output i.e. stimulate memories using associated sounds/smells/tactile stuff.

Cognitive Interview Techniques

Technique, example, psychological basis and evaluation

1. Ask the respondent to reconstruct physical and personal contexts, image of setting, emotional responses and sounds/smells.

The effectiveness of the cue will depend on the extent to which it was encoded with the information to be remembered (like the Madelines in Proust…)

There is some evidence of effectiveness, but results are mixed (as ever…)

2. Ask the respondent to report everything: this can provide valuable information

3. Invite recall from a variety of perspectives: ask interviewee to see x incident from perspective of someone else who was involved.

There are, however, concerns that if asked to do this, people speculate and start to fabricate.

4. Stimulate retrieval from different starting points: E.g. start backwards from the event, to work backwards through what led up to it. This draws on multiple retrieval pathways.

Some evidence of effectiveness, but inconclusive

So, CI enables a variety of approaches. You need to choose your technique according to what is emerging and what might open it up further.

There are two types of events:

Field events – This is the same field of vision as original events

Observer events – This is seen from the observer viewpoint of respondent as an actor in the scene.

To get someone warmed up for this, take a house/flat they know and get them to mentally “look out” of different windows and describe what they see – with eyes closed, to avoid distraction unless not comfortable with that.

An example

 Narrative will yield some things but CI will yield more.

Invite the narrative: (“Can you talk me through…”/”Can you tell me about…” – then sit back and say as little as possible, let it flow, unless you need to clarify)

Elicits abstract and orientation (Labov)

Respondent needs to show they are following. But if they say too much, it can change the flow, so you need to be careful. Nodding is good.

Having got the narrative, in order to move onto the cognitive part, you identify the focus: “What I’m going to do is focus if it’s ok on that exchange, the key – I want to just check that this is the key moment that – <description of moment> I’d like to just focus on that moment a little bit more if that’s ok…”

If it works, the person giving the interview will get into the moment. You can use sensory triggers, work from a sensory thing (e.g. smell of paint) and move out from this into what happens in an incident. Elicit emotions in present tense. From here, you can explore them.

Memory and emotion

Emotions: if you don’t probe in this way, people will generalize things, to avoid reenacting something unpleasant. Crucial if trying to get at a critical incident, when you don’t want vague generalizations.

Memory is unreliable: False memories are contagious. Someone else’s response may become ours. CI can probe beneath that and get at the reality.

Awareness of memory process: People can be aware of how memory works, conscious of it, much more so in CI than in narrative interviews.


 Laura example (on handout): The cognitive interview reveals the sense of betrayal experienced in talking to the daughter about the issues.

The dog doesn’t feature in the narrative but in the cognitive interview becomes the core of what is important. The real moment of change is linked to the dog and the sense of betrayal, which aren’t in the narrative. => This is the critical incident.

At the end, somebody asked a question, from which the following discussion emerged:

Is it just a question of paradigm? Cognitive interviews are seeking “the truth” (because that is the purpose of police witness interviews) whereas narrative is constructed. But, we can use techniques of the cognitive interview without committing to the assumption that we are eliciting “the truth”(definitely don’t assume that!), to get certain things to emerge and focus in on moments more effectively.

We can use it to enhance interviewing skills in some situations, especially those involving critical incidents. It is useful if we want to probe something that emerges, if that moment seems to be very important i.e. a critical incident.

All in all, this was a very interesting presentation, with a lot to think about and take away from it. 

One thought on “16th Warwick International Post-Graduate Conference in Applied Linguistics: Summary – Session 1, PCE 25th June: The cognitive interview and critical incidents (Dr. Keith Richards)

  1. Pingback: News: July 2013 | aplinglink

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