What Do You Expect Interview Subjects to Remember?

Could you tell me what you ate for dinner last weekend? What did you wear yesterday? Can you remember who was at that meeting three months ago?

Our memories are fallible, but interviewers all too often request that subjects recall intricate details of an event and, when they don’t, make a determination on their lack of honesty. Of course, remembering what you had for dinner last weekend may not be as monumental of an event as witnessing a crime take place. For example, it may be easier to recall where you were on September 11, 2001, than what you did on a random Tuesday in April. A variety of lessons can be learned here, both in the techniques used to probe a person’s memory as well as the assessment of their credibility.

Flashbulb Memories

In 1977, scholars Roger Brown and James Kulik identified the phenomenon of increased memory recall of a traumatic event, such as September 11, with the term “flashbulb memories.” One of the original known studies around this concept was conducted around the year 1900. Researchers asked participants about their recollection of the assassination of President Lincoln, which had occurred about three decades earlier. Similar to our experience of September 11, many participants were able to retrieve memories of where they were, what they were doing, and how they learned of the event. The labeling of this theory as “flashbulb memory” was based off the comparison of taking a photograph and the suggestion that our brains are able to take snapshots of these momentous occasions in our lives.

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Further research has helped to clarify this concept and also has facilitated how interviewers may assess the credibility of the retrieved information. A major point of concern is that although we may have flashbulb memories of specific events, it doesn’t guarantee that our recall of that event is any more accurate than other memories we may have. Further longitudinal studies have been conducted to determine how our memory accuracy and retention is impacted over time, as it relates to these flashbulb moments.

Talarico and Rubin published a study in 2003 called “Confidence, Not Consistency, Characterizes Flashbulb Memories” (in Psychological Science 14, no. 5) that explained how the phenomenon of flashbulb memories are based in our confidence in the memory versus the actual accuracy of our recall of the event. In their study, they found that both “everyday memory” and “flashbulb memories” both decline over time, but our confidence in the accuracy of the flashbulb moment remains high.

Applying this knowledge to an interview is important in both our tactics and assessment of information gained. First, it is important to acknowledge that if a “flashbulb” moment did not occur, there may be a lack of confidence in the retrieval attempt by the subject. If the interviewee did experience a momentous event, however, there may be a memory hook in which they are stronger in their recall confidence.

For instance, if tasked with interviewing a witness who observed a fight between two employees, the interviewee may appear to vividly recall that event as a flashbulb moment. However, as an interviewer, we must be cautious in mistaking their confidence with our assessment of its credibility and its perceived accuracy. Conversely, if interviewing a witness about a relatively mundane event (what they were doing during the shift last week), they may not be as confident in their recall and therefore may not provide as many details as the interviewer expects. This lack of perceived cooperation may result in an interviewer doubting the credibility of the subject’s story, but their reluctance to share may be based on their fear of getting the details wrong.

The Impact of Trauma

To add an extra layer of complication in the retrieval of an event, it is well known that exposure to trauma has a significant impact on our memories. In the loss prevention industry, an interviewee’s exposure to trauma may be less obvious than in the law enforcement arena. But employees can experience traumatic events in the workspace, including discriminatory behavior, workplace violence, bullying, or escalated conflicts with customers. Although these events may seem to fit the description of the flashbulb moment, the incorporation of trauma makes memory recall even more difficult to diagnose.

The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) provides insight into the impact of trauma on different types of memory recall, including emotional and episodic memory. “Emotional memory” simply refers to the memory of the emotions that we may have experienced or felt during a specific event. In an interview with an employee, this could be referring to emotions such as shame, embarrassment, fear, anger, or shock. Interviewers should be aware that asking an employee to retrieve information about a specific incident has the possibility of triggering those emotions again.

A primary concern with this issue is the safety and compassion for our employees and others in the workspace. Partnering with human resources and having an employee assistance program are avenues in which we can support our teams during this process. Secondly, the triggered emotions may appear out of context for the interviewer. Observing a subject become emotional (especially if not consistent with our expectations) may misguide an interviewer’s perception of their credibility. Each person will respond to a traumatic event differently. We must not classify the credibility of their statements based purely on the emotional response.

“Episodic memory” refers to the ability of a person to remember the factual information of an event, answering the investigative questions of who, what, where, and when. Again, the exposure to trauma can have a major impact on a person’s ability to retrieve this information confidently and accurately. NICABM describes how trauma may alter our interviewee’s recall of the event by impacting the way they organize and sequence the fragments of the incident. Often, a person recalling a traumatic experience may not do so in a linear fashion, causing the story to appear disjointed and contradictory.

So What Do I Do?

First, stop making assumptions on the credibility of a person based on their ability to recall an event. We now understand that many variables can impact our memories, and we’ve only touched on a few.

Take into consideration that witnesses may talk to each other before an interview, they may have been exposed to other versions of a story, or they may simply have a fear of giving you information. In effort to help a person tell their story, allow for silence and minimize interruptions. Constant disruptions to a person’s memory when they are recreating the context of the event will only minimize the retrieval attempt. Interviewers must also avoid leading questions or suggestive statements that risk the possibility of contaminating a person’s memory. Their recall of an event may be based off the interviewer’s expectations rather than their own memory.

Next time a subject tells you they don’t remember, consider that it may be a true statement. Even more importantly, just because a person can provide you vivid details about the event with confidence, we must still investigate their accuracy. It’s a good idea to save this edition for future reference, because as we just learned, you’ll probably forget what you just read.

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