I forgot my keys somewhere. I know I had them just a few minutes ago, and they were right here in my pocket. I locked the door and then—I’m sure they were in my pocket. It wouldn’t be so bad, but the spare key was on the ring because I meant to buy another key ring, but I guess I forgot. Or it might have been…
“I don’t remember” happens to us all. And as we grow older, it becomes much scarier because we wonder if this is the beginning of Alzheimer’s or just one of those things that gets misplaced in our memories. I prefer to think of it as saving space for the more important things in life. You know—letting the details spill out while I keep the important stuff inside.
The Memory Hook
The “important stuff” sometimes only becomes important once we can’t remember. Why couldn’t we remember? It’s possible that there is not a memory hook to retain the moment. Years ago, 1981 to be exact, there was a movie called The Four Seasons starring Alan Alda and Carol Burnett as one of three couples followed through the four seasons of the year. Alan Alda provides the memory hook for the couples while they are floating on a lake in the springtime drinking wine and eating bread. He stands in the boat after talking about how he wants everyone to remember this day. Alda says, “I do this for you, so you will remember,” and then leaps into the water. The other husbands join him with shrieks of laughter. The memory hook has been set.
A Dishonest Employee and Convenient Amnesia
Put yourself into the mind of the dishonest employee and the emotions at play when deciding to commit a crime. There must be uncertainty relating to fear wondering if he will succeed or be discovered—the adrenaline rush as the body enters the fight-or-flight mode, revving up the body’s defenses for what could happen. This fear of detection has to imprint the memory of the act, making it impossible to forget the event.
That said, there may be a muting of these feelings as repetitive successful acts of employee dishonesty diminish the fear of detection as the criminal behavior escalates. For example, if a dishonest employee uses receipts to commit return fraud, they certainly remember that they used the documents to steal money from the organization. However, they may not have an independent recollection of the pattern of behavior occurring over a long period of time.
The suspect can estimate the frequency of behavior, but the actual admission may be beyond their ability to recall with accuracy. For example, a person certainly knows whether they ate at a particular fast-food restaurant during the last twelve months. In fact, they probably can estimate how many times they’ve eaten there by reconstructing their typical eating behaviors. At the very least, they are capable of saying that they had been there.
In situations where a subject reverts to “I don’t remember,” it is generally a means of defending himself without having to admit to participation in a particular act. For example, in a Senate hearing, if the person under oath denied committing the act, he will have committed perjury. However, if the “I don’t remember” response is used, it enables the subject to respond without committing perjury.
Countering “I Don’t Know”
One legitimate way to prepare for this type of response is to encourage the subject to talk about his job, its processes, and his responsibilities. Using what we would call a participatory interview approach allows the questioner to have the subject commit to a series of events before the questioning focuses on the target of the inquiry. This sets up a difficult situation for the subject where he has to defend his ability to remember in one area but then later have no recollection of almost anything in another.
In an interview with a dishonest employee, switching to a participatory questioning style moves the subject from areas of general inquiry toward the target area. Because the subject has been detailed in his responses, it is difficult for him to turn to the “I don’t remember” response. Since he has been responsive up to this point, it would be awkward to so abruptly shift gears.
In this type of pathway, it is more likely that the subject will use the failure-to-recall response when asked to develop the admission. He will initially offer some examples substantiating his dishonesty but then be reluctant to expand on the admission. When faced with this type of a response, the interviewer should return to the use of showing understanding and empathy to support the subject’s self-image.
We all forget small details. We forget those things that aren’t tied to the emotions or are particularly important in our day-to-day lives. When questioning a subject, look to determine how the events unfolded and examine the emotions that may have been in play when the internal theft situation happened. But above all, evaluate the “I don’t remember” in the context of what is being asked. “Did you steal the missing deposit from the safe?” “I don’t remember.”
This article was excerpted from “I Don’t Remember,” which was originally published in 2016. This article was updated May 14, 2019.