Cognitive Interview (A Comprehensive Guide)

Cognitive Interview

Cognitive interview is basically an interviewing technique which is used to question the victims and eyewitnesses about what actually happened and what they can recall from the crime scene spot.The investigator uses four retrievals. The cognitive interview is primarily focused about making the victims and witnesses to make aware of the situation in which all the events took place. The cognitive interview method is considered efficient in reducing the uncertainties and misinterpretations which are usually observed in the questioning processes of traditional methods adopted by the police. This method is reliable in enhancing the process related to retrieval of the memory and is seen to evoke the memory regardless of producing false account information or any memory disorder coming into play. These types of interviews have been found to be used by the police during investigation and their training programs. In this article we will discuss cognitive interview:

Cognitive Interview (A Comprehensive Guide)

History of Cognitive Interviews

RAND Corporation conducted a research on criminal investigation in 1975. This research revealed that sworn statements given by the eyewitnesses were the significant factors in determining the case whether it was unresolved or solved. Nevertheless, it was observed that most of the eyewitnesses reports were not reliable because they might not be complete, were constructed partially and there was a chance of vulnerability in suggestion during the process of interviews. It has been shown by the studies that techniques used to interview such as asking close ended questions and leading questions are influential for responses which were recorded by the victim or eyewitness. A researcher Elizabeth Loftus who studied the eyewitness testimony, false memories and misinformation effect explored most of the techniques. 

In 1984, researchers Geiselman, Fisher and their associates developed the cognitive interviews. These interviews were developed to replace the ineffective techniques of interviewing used by the police in recent times. They intended to provide techniques which can be helpful in increasing the accuracy of the testimony of the victim or the eyewitness. These researchers observed that participants were able to recall the more correct information regarding an event, as compareto when it occurred on questionnaire, when they were trained in memory retrieval techniques.

 Their methods were generally based on the four rules of general memory retrieval. These rules were based on the assumptions that the memory traces are generally difficult with different types of information and encoding specificity principle. Geiselman, Fisher and their associates Holland and Mackinnon, 1985, revealed that cognitive interviews are ecologically valid when the participants had watched the videos of a crime. Geiselman, Fisher and their coworkers, in 1987, revised the original concept of cognitive interviews. These reviews in the original scripts of cognitive interviews included the concept of how to structure the  interviews which can be more effective for the brain to retrieve the memory. This version of cognitive interviews revealed that there was a 45% increase in the information retrieved which were correct. The Geuselman and Fisher, in 1992, also contributed in writing a manual to provide the training for the investigative agencies about the procedure of conducting cognitive interviews. Their contribution in developing the techniques brought results and these techniques are now used world-wide by investigative agencies such as attorneys, police departments and investigators.

Cognitive Interview (A Comprehensive Guide)

Conducting a Cognitive Interview

There are several steps in which a cognitive interview is conducted by the investigators. Firstly, there is an introduction session which is really helpful in establishing a relation among the interviewer and the witnesses. Here, the investigator will introduce the four rules of retrieval to the victim or witness and will tell him to apply those methods. Then the eyewitness will be provided a chance by the interviewer to narrate what he sees without interruption. As the interviewee will be narrating what happened, meanwhile the investigator will be able to build a mechanism to ask the remaining questions. The eyewitness will then be guided by the investigator with many memory representations full of information, after this process the investigator will be able to carry out an assessment of the recollections of the eyewitness. The interview will be completed followed by the completion of this final step. The interview will be over finally, but with a suggestion that will prolong its functional life. Willis states that the interviews are possible to conduct for a two-hour time but one hour is the optimal duration of a cognitive interview. 

There are number of techniques involved in a cognitive interview:

Mental Reinstatement of Environmental and Personal Contexts

The investigator will try to reestablish the mental, ecological and personal context of the crime for eyewitnesses. Start with asking questions regarding the normal life activities and feelings on that particular day. This may feature sounds, sights, emotions, feelings and weather etc. 

The eyewitness, in this interview, will be mostly asked to utilize his all five senses while recounting the events. This will be helpful in reestablishing,in their mind, the connections with the event understandably and it can arise recalling of the memories dependent on the situation. 

Reporting the Event from Different Perspectives

In this phase the eyewitness is told to narrate the event with a different angle, making them bale to describe what the other witnesses and even the criminals may have seen. 

Describing the Event in Several Orders

Describing what happened on the crime scene in an entirely different order. Fisher and Geiselman state that people can easily recall the events with more clarity due to the recency effect as compared to other people. The eyewitnesses must be motivated to go back to their memory and recall the event in backward order I,e., from the end to the start. 

In-depth Reporting

The eyewitness is encouraged to describe every minor detail including whatever they think is so trivial to narrate. This way can be helpful in getting that apparent information which is considered as unimportant and this piece of information can help in evoking the key information about the event.

There is a common belief that if that narration order is changed and changing the perceptive technique can be helpful in recalling as they minimize using the prior knowledge,schema or expectations by the eyewitness.

Cognitive Interview (A Comprehensive Guide)

Cognitive Interview Experiment:

An experiment conducted in the psychology laboratory, in 1985, by Fisher, MacKinnon, Geiselman Holland made a comparison of cognitive interview with the standard interview used by investigators and hypnosis. 


In 1985, Geiselman tried to probe how effective the cognitive interview can prove to be. 


The participants were made to watch a movie which consisted of violent crimes. After two days or forty-eight hours the participants were interviewed by the police official through one of the three interview methods. First one was the cognitive interview method, the other one was the standard interview which was being used by the Los Angeles Police Department and the last one interview by using hypnosis. They recorded the numbers of accurate figures recalled and the numbers of mistakes made.


The results showed that the correctly recalled information in the cognitive interview was at an average of 41.2. The average number of correctly recalled facts for hypnosis was 38.0 and the results shown by the standard interview was to ne 29.4. No significant variation was recorded in the number of mistakes made in each interview.


It was concluded that using the cognitive interview technique can lead to recalling the events better with the eyewitnesses good enough in recalling the admissible information in contrast to the traditional interviewing techniques. 


In 1990, Fisher and his colleagues determined that eyewitnesses were able to produce more information about the crimes from their memory when the investigators were provided training to implement these techniques.

This method is more reliable and composed as compared to the other techniques and it apparently feels that it is suitable for the interviews related to crimes to be very comprehensive for gathering the required information for a useful testimony.


In 1999, Koehnken and his colleagues determined that there is a chance for the eyewitnesses to recall the false details when they are investigated using the cognitive interview in contrast with standard interview technique. The reason behind this is that recalling the more detailed information provided probably can increase the chance of committing a mistake. 

The cognitive interviews consume more time as compared to the other standard interviews. 


Cognitive interviews have shown many significantly positive results as compared to the other traditional interviewing methods adopted by the police. Despite this fact the cognitive interview has also some limitations. 

Dependence on eyewitnesses

The cognitive interview will only be useful in the case when the eyewitness himself was present at the crime scene. And if no witnesses were at the spot when the crime was being committed the use of cognitive interview is hindered and it becomes non-existent. Using the cognitive interview for the situations like batteries or robberies can be effective when there are eyewitnesses who are supposed to be present. 

Limitations with accurate information

The aim of cognitive interview is to maximize the information retrieved by the witness, to implement this technique for enhancing the memory doesn’t guarantee the information provided will be accurate. It is common for an investigator to stick to the biases related to social desirability during the course of the interview. It implies that eyewitnesses can easily change the responses or story in such a way that he feels will make his responses accurate and acceptable for the investigator and society as well. Meta-analysis indicated that the precision is similar to the standard interviewing technique. 

Cognitive Interview (A Comprehensive Guide)


Having some of the limitations the cognitive interview technique can prove to be an effective tool in investigation. 

Police and interviewing

This is believed that cognitive interviews techniques are far more effective than traditional interview methods. It has become evident from the results of field tests that those investigators who were provided training to conduct the cognitive interview can benefit to get more details from the eyewitness. Research has shown that more information is obtained while adopting cognitive interview methods as compared to traditional interview styles. 

Children and cognitive interviews:

Children are considered to be able to give accurate information to the investigators which are seen to be correct and in depth in a cognitive interview. It has been reported by the researchers that details provided by the children in a cognitive interview technique are more relevant to the crime and police investigation. The children are able to correctly recall the information about the criminals, crimes and the locations and objects as compared to a traditional interview method of police. 

FAQs about Cognitive Interview 

What is a cognitive interview?

Cognitive interview is basically an interviewing technique which is used to question the victims and eyewitnesses about what actually happened and what they can recall from a crime scene spot. 

What are traditional interview methods?

Traditional interview methods are those methods which are controlled by the police to investigate the crimes. 

What are the strengths of cognitive interviews?

This is a structured and reliable technique of interviewing a witness which can be helpful in gathering the more accurate and relevant information about the crime. 

What are the weaknesses of cognitive interviews? 

Cognitive interviews can be influenced by the biases of the investigator and the interviewee also gets a chance to change his responses which are acceptable to investigators. 


Cognitive Interview (A Comprehensive Guide)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behaviour, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.