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PodcastProfessor Laurence Alison is the Director of the Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology at the University of Liverpool.

He is an expert in interrogation techniques and suggests that a softer approach tends to achieve harder results. In this University of Liverpool podcast he discusses his team’s recent research into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to interrogating detainees.

How do you get a perpetrator to confess to their crimes?

If you’re trying to solve a brutal murder, or any other crime, and one of your chief suspects is sat across the table from you, what’s the best approach to take with your interrogation? Should you go in strong and dominant and demand they tell you everything? Or maybe act humble and meek and appeal for their cooperation?

If you get it right, you should have a better chance of getting the interviewee talking and potentially providing the information you need to help solve the crime. Get your approach wrong, and you could quickly up end down a blind alley of “no comment” responses from your suspect, a crime that is no closer to being solved, or a victim that suffers further harm.

Liverpool researchers managed to obtain exclusive access to more than 1,200 hours of real interrogation footage in the United States that involved a range of suspects: from domestic right-wing terrorist groups, to ISIS-inspired extremists and para-military groups. They also looked at 50-60 years of research into interpersonal skills to uncover any behavioural lessons that could be learnt.

Surprisingly, Laurence’s team found that the best interrogators used techniques that were similar to those used in counselling and therapy - techniques that involve being non-judgmental, flexible, empathetic and able to understand the detainee’s motivations.

“People often misunderstand empathy as a warm, huggy feeling. But it's actually a much more clinical, objective dissection of what's going on in someone’s head. Rather than trying to think 'what would I do in your shoes?' It's about being professionally curious enough to imagine, based on their upbringing and personal circumstances, what that person might be thinking and feeling about the current situation,” explains Laurence.

The team identified four ‘archetypes’ of behaviour, which they labelled: lion, monkey, mouse and T-Rex. They reviewed the recorded interrogations, making notes every 15 minutes on the interpersonal behaviours of everyone involved: interviewer, detainee, lawyer. They also noted how much useful information the detainee provided, such as names, locations, timings.

“As an interrogator, you need to understand what the best interpersonal style is to use with your detainee and how can you use these other 'counselling’ skills to start generating more information, intelligence and evidence from them,” says Laurence.

When the information you’re seeking could literally make the difference between life and death, every interrogator owes it to themselves, and to victims of crime, to give themselves the best possible chance of success.

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online psychology programmes? Find out more about the MSc in Psychology and our other psychology programmes.

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