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It’s All About Context

What a wonderful thing to hear “I love you” from a longtime partner, but disquieting to have it said in the middle of a first date. It is comforting to hear “I love you” in a long-time relationship because it confirms what both have known for so long. But, during a first date, an “I love you” brings to mind things like stalker, insane, or serial killer.

It’s Really about the Context, Isn’t It?

As children we learned that much of the communication between people was as much about the context of the situation as it was about the words used to define the real meaning of the exchange. What makes learning a new language so difficult is the nebulous and seemingly inexplicable nuances that go far beyond the words chosen by the speakers.

The Open-Ended Question

During this year’s International Association of Interviewers’ Elite Training Day, we had an opportunity to sit with several academics who shared the current research relating to behavior and interviewing. It was interesting to hear their perspective from a research standpoint as compared with that of the practitioner.

At one point during the discussion one of the academics asked why we don’t begin an interview with an open-ended question. She seemed surprised that this was not universally done, but since she was heavily influenced by the research on the PEACE model of the United Kingdom, it wasn’t necessarily surprising. The PEACE model is similar to the cognitive interview used here in the US to develop information from victims and witnesses. More recently it is also being used to identify the deceptive suspect in an investigation.

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The answer here lies in the context of what the investigator is actually doing. The Cognitive Interview and the PEACE model of interviewing rely heavily on the open-ended question that encourages a narrative response from the subject, which hopefully provides more extensive detail to the investigator. Unfortunately, one of the byproducts of the open-ended question is it takes longer to complete an interview.

Dr. Edward Geiselman, one of the developers of the cognitive interview, said that using the cognitive interview to adequately develop a victim or witness’s story could take as much is two-and-a-half hours. Now, there is no question that if an investigator has a sufficiently serious case, he or she might invest the time and energy to drill the subject’s story down into minute details. But, here again, that seriousness provides a context that requires the investigator to use the in-depth detailed interviewing required for the case.

Truthful vs. Untruthful Individuals

Let’s consider the context under which a truthful and untruthful individual decides to lie. First and foremost is the deceptive individual’s fear of detection. The fear of detection alters the person’s physiological and psychological perception of the world. Physiologically the body prepares to either fight or flee the apparently threatening situation. Psychologically, the individual explodes, becoming a mass of conflicting emotions, panic, and unreasoned impulses. The truthful individual is not under physiological and psychological pressure having only to retrieve his memory of the situation. While there may be some elements of nervousness, these dissipate over time as the individual becomes more comfortable speaking with the investigator.

To prepare for the interview, the truthful person simply thinks about the circumstances surrounding the event and attempts to retrieve details prior to his conversation. The deceptive individual is more worried about being detected and may attempt to prepare some form of a story that will help him conceal his involvement in the incident.

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While the deceptive individual may go to some lengths in preparing his story, most liars do not do this. Most deceptive individuals prepare a bare-bones narrative lacking the detail, emotion, and general realism of a truthful story. The bare-bones story told by the deceptive individual is easier to remember if asked to repeat it at a later time and also affords them an opportunity to alter the story should evidence be presented contradicting some aspect of it. Unfortunately for them, this requires them to invent details and answers on the spur of the moment during the investigator’s questioning.

Open-ended questions provide a perfect avenue for the investigator to increase pressure, or what researchers call cognitive load, without appearing confrontational. Simply saying, “Tell me more about that,” forces the deceptive person to have to expand detail that may conflict with other parts of the story. Instead, in response to the open-ended question the deceptive individual may talk off-topic or not provide any additional details about that particular area of inquiry.

The investigator may simply use extended pauses or silence to encourage the individual to keep talking even though he is not providing any additional relevant content. When this is done with the truthful individual, they continue adding detail and explanations relevant to what was being discussed. Using open-ended questions and long pauses to elicit additional information from both the truthful and untruthful is an excellent way to conduct an interview. Unfortunately, some contexts don’t allow this tactic to be used.

The Effect of Time Limits

One simple example in many organizations is where a company has an internal policy that limits the amount of time an employee may be interviewed. For most of the companies we are familiar with, this time limit ranges somewhere between forty and ninety minutes. If the dishonest employee has not made an admission during this timeframe, the interviewer is required to back out and close the interview. Unfortunately, spending a lot of time using open-ended questions will eat this precious time up as the employee rambles from one point to the next.

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We also pointed out to the academics that there are a number of other contexts where the open-ended question does not fit with the time constraints imposed. Another example is an officer’s questioning technique in a field setting. These unexpected and spontaneous discussions may begin with an open-ended question designed to elicit an untainted response from the subject, but it is then followed with a series of closed-ended questions to quickly drill down to the meat of the issue. The questioning might look like the following:

“What are you doing here?”

“I…ah…well…he’s supposed to pick me up.”

“Who’s he?”

“My brother.”

“What’s his name?”


“You have any ID?”

“Yeah…ah there it is.”

“What time is he supposed to pick you up?”

“Just about now.”

“Where is he coming from? Where is he taking you? How did you get here? Who are you visiting? Where do they live?” And so on.

The first open-ended question used by the officer provides the untainted story from the subject. However, because the encounter is limited by the courts, the officer can only freeze the situation for a short period of time before he must either release the individual or make a formal arrest.

The closed-ended questions work as effectively as the open-ended question in the short encounter because the individual could not anticipate the need to lie or the need to prepare a story for his presence at the location. As the officer asks the closed-ended question, the subject has to invent a plausible excuse on-the-fly, which increases the likelihood of his deception being detected by the suspicious officer.

For example, if the subject said, “My brother is taking me to the airport to catch a flight.” Now in the context of the stop, the officer might inquire about the lack of luggage, airline ticket, or specific knowledge of the flight, which seemingly contradict the supposed trip. Each contradiction will require the invention of additional details, another explanation, or possibly even an admission of deception.

Shoplifting investigators may also find questioning a suspected shoplifter is a much more focused inquiry as the individual is questioned about the particular item they’ve concealed. Not expecting to be detained, the individual has to invent information and conceal others.

How Context Evolves

There are so many areas where the context of the conversation alters the questioning style of the investigator that the one-size-fits-all, open-ended question may not be the best way to proceed. It was interesting to have an opportunity to discuss questioning styles with academics that have minimal real-world experience in interviewing. Their perspective has evolved from the body of work on deception and its detection, plus research into retrieval of memories and the reaction of the guilty to being question.
In our next column we will discuss how the context evolves for both subject and investigator during the questioning and identification of the guilty. What on the surface might seem to be an inappropriate question actually fits the context of the situation exactly and thus is perfectly suited for use during the admission-seeking interview.

While the deceptive individual may go to some lengths in preparing his story, most liars do not do this. Most deceptive individuals prepare a bare-bones narrative lacking the detail, emotion, and general realism of a truthful story. The bare-bones story told by the deceptive individual is easier to remember if asked to repeat it at a later time and also affords them an opportunity to alter the story should evidence be presented contradicting some aspect of it.

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