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Effects of Physical Setting on Disclosure of Information in Investigative Interviews: It is not all about Interview Protocols

By: Dr. Michael J. Perrotti, Ph.D.
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Proper interviewing Protocols are critical to maximize information-gathering as well as accuracy of information in criminal and National Security investigations. Police procedures incorrectly assume that promoting physical close proximity with an interviewer (eg, Inbau, Reid, Buckley, & Jane, 2013) will induce subjects to become more forthcoming.

Embedded Cognition

Embedded cognition tells us that interpersonal warmth is embedded in physical warmth. There are interactive effects between bodily states and cognitive processes.

Conceptual Metaphors

Metaphors are of use in concretizing abstract concepts most of which have a perceptual basis. Metaphors permits us to think and reason abstractly and are grounded in common physical experiences (Gibbs, Lima, & Francozo, 2004).


(Okken, van Rompay, & Pruyn, 2012, 2013) found that manipulating openness through the physical parameters of a setting (ie, room size and desk size) served as an interface on subjects perception of spaciousness and promoted disclosure of sensitive information about such areas on sexual behavior and substance abuse. (Miwa & Hanyu, 2006) demonstrated that in clinical settings context can influence the amount and type of information individuals are willing to share.

Effects of Physical Setting and Disclosure

(Dawson et al., 2017) tested a theory driven hypothesis that an interview setting designed to activate concepts of openness through metaphor consistent design characteristics would result in subjects becoming more forthcoming with information about a mock conspiracy than subjects interviewed in a small room similar to those utilized in custodial settings. The findings were consistent with research on embedded cognition and metaphoric transfer effects. A large room featuring openness led subjects to disclose more information compared with a smaller interview room. (Dawson et al., 2017) note that their study is the first empirical demonstration that the physical context of an investigative interview influences a subjects behavior and that it can be designed constructively to promote disclosure. The researchers also found that the effects of the setting on disclosure were not due to the settings influence on the interviewer who was perceived similarly in terms of such things as suspiciousness, pressure, and closeness by participants in both settings, ie, open setting (larger room twice the size of custodial setting). The open setting contained openness primes (a painting hung on each wall, a picture of open water under an open sky, 2 open top lamps, a small table with a clear, open water jug, and an open book).

Results of the study 1 condition are consistent with research showing that room size and interior features can influence a person's willingness to disclose sensitive information (Okken et al., 2012). This is especially critical in interviewing of children when investigating child sexual abuse allegations. This author has utilized a large, spacious room with children with good faciltative effects on disclosure.

Study results are consistent with theories of embedded cognition and metaphoric transfer that larger, open spaces and openness primes facilitate openness of the self. Mediational analyses offer support for the perception of spaciousness facilitating the relationship between interview setting and behavior with perception of greater space promoting disclosure.

A second study (Study 2) was conducted to address the question of whether the observed effects were due to spaced layout of the room, the object primes or both.


These two studies by (Dawson et al., 2017) demonstrate that increasing spaciousness of an interview room results in individuals being more forthcoming with disclosure of information about a conspiracy compared with those interviewed in a smaller room. (Dawson et al., 2017) notes that these two studies are the first to empirically demonstrate that the physical setting itself influences the outcome of an investigative interview.

This author has observed thousands of interviews by law enforcement in custodial settings, of defendants interviewed in small rooms in their home and children interviewed by social service agencies all in small, enclosed spaces. These factors are conducive to false confessions, eg, coerced compliant confessions. Subjects will say anything to extricate themselves from the situation. Police have been observed closer to a subject in a small closed room resulting in intimidation. This can result in subjects telling police what they think they want to hear to extricate themselves from the situation.

(Dawson et al., 2017) notes that surveys of law enforcement show that isolating a subject, presumably in a small room is the most relevant approach to interviewing (Kassin et al., 2007). (Dawson et al., 2017) states that interference and law enforcement investigative interviewing are regulated in the UK, where policy mandates use of information-gathering approaches, irrespective of the status of the subject (Home Office, 2003). The science supports information gathering approaches (PEACE Model, see Bill & Soukara, 2010; Clarke & Milne, 2001), which are more effective at eliciting information and reducing false confessions than accusatorial approaches. (Meissner et al., 2014) Complementing efforts by governments in Europe to utilize scientifically based and human rights compliant interviewing procedures, the US Government has supported research initiatives for use of scientifically supported interviewing approaches (Brandon, 2011).

These studies highlight the necessity for prosecutors, public defenders and Child Protective Service Agencies to push for change in the area of investigative interviewing. The necessity to get it right is paramount given the catastrophic effects on human lives by false confessions. Similarly, this writer argues that smaller rooms with isolation and lack of openness priming objects with children contributes to an increase in errors in investigative interviews of children due to their being so suggestible. This in turn results in false child sexual abuse allegations.

(Dawson et al., 2017) note that placing someone in an enclosed, uncomfortable, isolated environment will lead one to disclose in order to escape is unsupported by research. This author disagrees. When one examines the totality of circumstances, in particular with passive, anxious defendants, they do confess to escape the exigencies of interrogative pressure in police interviews. Similarly, children are subjected to repeated interviews by interviewers utilizing close ended, suggestive questions. (Lamb et al., 2008) speaks of training law enforcement in the NICHD investigative interview protocols for young victims and witnesses. He notes that subsequent to training, law enforcement reverts to closed-ended, suggestive questioning. Thus research presented in this paper is a clarion call for urgency for practical reforms to codify scientifically supported information gathering approaches.

Let the reader beware that the physical setting of the interview itself can undermine constructive effects to improve the reliability of investigative interviews

Dr. Perrotti received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from Alliant University in San Diego, CA. He is a licensed psychologist in California and Pennsylvania. Dr. Perrotti is a member of the National Register of Health Service Provider in psychology and the National Academy of Neuropsychology. He was an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine, USC from 2005-2006. Dr. Perrotti is the author of numerous publications in forensic psychology and assessment, traumatic brain injury in college, professional sports and military populations, and child trauma and complex PTSD.

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