Friday, April 4, 2008

Language and Methods of Interrogation

There is a psychology behind the methods used to interrogate based on decades of research and field study. Sometimes interrogation may only be practiced in the half-baked way of those who have garnered results from a few simplistic methods or it may reach the level of precision and artistry.

Interrogation can take place on many different levels and in numerous situations. While normally the word invokes images of small, dimly lit rooms and harsh tactics with dire consequences for those who fail to respond, here it is used it in the broader sense as well.

It may be as basic as questioning a colleague in the workplace regarding something you don't think is quite right. You suspect some kind of dishonesty so you approach the person in a casual and unassuming way and slowly segue into the heart of the matter.

Airport security staff also uses various methods of eliciting information. This is a more practiced type of interrogation though it is usually based on subtle and refined techniques as opposed to more forceful and desperate approaches.

Police forces employ all the simple techniques used in less intense situations but have the added benefit of being able to confine their targets. This ability to hold someone against their will also lends itself to using more threatening and aggressive questioning tactics. While this may be assumed to be an advantage over softer means and more benign situations, it can often have the reverse effect. The fact that the subject knows they are being interrogated naturally results in resistance. Also, incompetent interviewers may move towards the more forceful practices sooner, simply because they know the option is available.

Various units within the government and military of a country are very similar in what they are capable of doing with regards to suspects. Many have the added license of torture or murder at their disposal, spurred on by righteous justification in the form of oaths, platitudes and other self-serving propaganda.

All types of interrogation are based on the assumption that the person being questioned is hiding something. In all situations there are underlying truisms and motivating factors which guide the entire process.

Here are some of the most common methods used during interrogations.

1. Creating confusion

If a person can be tripped up and confused, they are more likely to falter regarding a lie they are trying to maintain. This is a practice often used by airport security staff who are trying to determine if there is anything odd about a passenger's story. They will ask pertinent questions intermingled with utterly meaningless and banal queries. Then, they will come back with re-worded versions of the relevant questions to see if the responses match the earlier answers. Repetition and a casual approach are key here.

The maxim that has become popular in recent years: "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything," can explain the logic behind this style of eliciting the truth. The facts as they actually happened normally remain seared in most people's brains and can easily be recounted while lies must be rehearsed.

2. Building affinity

Making it easy for someone to like you is what this is all about. When you feel like you have something in common with another person, you are more likely to open up to them. This technique is common in social or work situations where there may be no clear indication someone is seeking information for anything other than interest's sake. And, as with every method listed here, it is used in more intense situations as well. The "good cop" in the classic "good cop/bad cop" schtick comes to mind.

People in general tend to give superficial or dishonest answers for a multitude of reasons and covering a wide array of topics. Lies are often not malicious but are offered as a defense or sometimes as the result of deep-seated psychological reasons. Or, just as often, people just don't want relative strangers to know information about them. Develop some kind of a connection and those shields might come down.

3. Appealing to truth

This can work in relatively benign contexts or in the more acute settings where the interrogator has power to restrict the movement of the person being questioned. There is something liberating about coming clean for many people.

But, are these claims about "the truth" valid and do they really speak to an irrefutable reality? Or is the narrative so powerful simply because it is part of the simplistic and redemptive notions that have been instilled at birth yet have little to do with the complex adult world we inhabit?

The foundations of such claims could probably be be swatted away with little effort. Still, invoking "truth" mantras seems to work a treat for many interrogators.

4. Using logic

When someone engages in a simple conversation and is relating a version of events, if their story doesn't hang together, simply attacking the holes in the description can force a person to restate, recant or just plain buckle under pressure.

The statement "That doesn't make sense!" has the remarkable effect of highlighting inconsistencies and forcing the person making the original claims to backtrack and try to change the facts to be more convincing. Even a brazen liar will be thrown off when they realize that there is a problem with their time-line or details.

5. Creating an opportunity to relieve feelings of guilt

Another supposed truism that does seem to be borne out somewhat by experience. When the person being braced is holding a horrific experience inside, the belief that coming clean will be a weight off their conscience can be all it takes to get a confession.

However, if a person has truly gone through such an experience they may conclude that such rehabilitative benefits are limited. The knowledge that the fewer people who know something, the less real it is, could just as easily offset such attempts.

6. Offering a benefit

A basic and effective way to draw out secrets from others. When the sharing of information is tied to a tangible payoff, the odds of convincing that person to spill their guts increase. The benefit can be concrete in a financial or other measurable way or it can be more subtle. In a pinch, many of the other methods and approaches listed here could also fall under such a description.

7. Instilling fear

One of the greatest motivators in all situations in life. Used as a tool to manipulate and cajole people to provide facts and information, it is one of the bluntest and most effective. Threats of harm to a person's physical well-being or that of his family's is the starkest manifestation of such an approach. Of course, there are far more nuanced and subtle ways to use fear as a means to produce a cooperative individual. It is something that is not only used by those in extreme interrogation situations but also amongst colleagues, family and friends.

Just as with the use of torture, the risk with using fear is that the person being grilled will say anything to relieve the immediate stress.

8. Preying on thoughts of revenge

"Provide me with what I want to know and you will cause damage to one of your enemies," can be a powerful way to extract intelligence. Especially if doing so will cause little or no harm to the person supplying the information.

9. Exhausting the target

Simply hammering someone with questions non-stop over time can tire them out to such a degree that they simply give in for no other reason than to stop the process. This could work in situations where the target is held against their will or in a location where the person is free to come and go. Imagine a work situation where a co-worker is badgered non-stop over a period of weeks to the point that they dread coming to the office or seeing their tormentor's face. They give in to end the onslaught.

10. Lying

Simply lying to a person in order to spring the vault is one of the most common tricks in the book. In doing so, any number of the other methods can be simultaneously employed. For example, dangling a financial reward you have no intent of honouring in front of someone in exchange for the information you are seeking

A method used to great success by police forces the world over, especially when there are different individuals being questioned separately. Telling a suspect that his partner has informed on him when nothing of the sort has happened is a simple way to provoke a reaction and try to draw out the truth.

11. Appealing to the greater good

Other people will benefit though you may suffer. Entire organizational subcultures are built on such altruistic thinking and so it is often used to convince someone to divulge secrets or damaging details. The narrative takes hold in the person's mind that they are doing something honourable and they see themselves as a kind of martyr.

This list barely even addresses the ways that people can evade attempts to break down their wall of defense. Nor does it look at the ability of skilled and experienced questioners who can recognize the body language, emotions and small tells provided by those they are interviewing.

And it doesn't cover the specific words that might be used or other aspects of delivery such as voice tempo and volume.

Vastly more complex and nuanced ways of interrogation are also possible. An individual skilled in the art of manipulation may use imagery to create a convincing and hypnotic atmosphere that preys on the target's background or fears. Or he may establish some of the classic power relationship models that exist in the field of psychology.

But this is a sampling of the most common ways that people use to convince others to share their innermost secrets or simply to provide innocuous details that they may have been with-holding. It can be an intense and dramatic undertaking or bland and relatively inconsequential.

Knowledge and information is power. The ability to get at the data and facts that most benefits you is an important skill. As is recognizing and resisting the interrogation attempts of others.


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