In this survey, we explored police investigators’ use of context manipulation techniques and beliefs on their effectiveness. Overall, the majority of respondents indicated the interview setting to be of importance, and to already employ some context manipulation techniques in their practice. Examples of these include the seating arrangements, their clothing (i.e., formal vs. casual), and having items such as water and coffee handy to provide suspects with. Investigators also indicated contextual considerations to be effective. More specifically, removing distractions (i.e., no papers, clocks, personal items), considering their clothing, and considering the room’s setup (i.e., location of table) were rated as the three most effective contextual considerations.
Regarding the specific context manipulation techniques outlined in Kelly et al.’s (2013) taxonomy, the majority of respondents indicated all but one (conducting interviews in a small room) to be actual techniques, but their usage frequencies were rated moderate to low. This aligns with Kelly et al.’s (2015) findings, where the context manipulation techniques were reported among the least used. This is not surprising considering how little the context manipulation techniques were reported to be taught during trainings. Actively thinking about, and using contextual aspects of the interview as techniques, may be a relatively recent notion. Rather than thinking of them as techniques, some contextual aspects may be thought of as routine matters (Kelly et al. 2015). Nonetheless, the majority of the techniques were rated to be useful, and while this may be a result of afterthought, it shows that investigators are receptive to the use of context manipulation techniques. Therefore, contextual manipulations could be potential targets for interviewing training reform because of the positive beliefs that investigators already have.
Investigators’ responses aligned more with an information-gathering approach to interviewing over an interrogative or accusatorial approach. For example, making the room “appear warm and comfortable” was reported to be among the most useful techniques, whereas conducting the interview in a small room was reported as the least useful technique. Investigators reported that leaving suspects alone in the interview room was helpful for allowing them time to think and take a mental break from the interview. This alignment with an information-gathering style is noteworthy, because for the most part, the contextual manipulations outlined in interviewing manuals can be interpreted as an attempt to exert control over suspects (Kelly et al. 2019). For example, isolating suspects and interviewing them in small rooms can create a sense of being trapped, instilling a sense of loss of control, and lean toward psychological manipulation (Gudjonsson 2003). Nonetheless, context manipulation techniques can be used to foster a productive investigator-suspect relationship, rather than control, and research examining this idea is moving forward (Kelly et al. 2019).
The results from this survey offer insight into what context manipulation techniques require further empirical examination. For example, based on the contextual considerations most reported, future research should examine what seating arrangements are optimal in an investigative interviewing scenario. While the Reid manual recommends a close proximity and instructs investigators to gradually move closer to the suspect because “the closer a person is to someone physically, the closer he becomes to that person psychologically” (p. 283; Inbau et al. 2013), there is no empirical evidence to support this statement, or the benefits of close proximity. To examine contextual influences, future research will need to tease apart the dynamic nature of interviews and isolate the effect originating from contextual aspects (e.g., seating arrangements) while controlling for suspects’ individual differences and/or situational factors.
This survey offers considerations for (re)designing interview rooms. Majority of investigators reported being unsatisfied with their current interview rooms, mostly due to the rooms’ sterility. Considering that investigators spend a significant amount of their working time inside these rooms, future research should explore how such sterile environments affect investigators, their interviewing procedures, and their well-being. When asked what they considered most important for designing an interview room, majority of investigators mentioned creating a comfortable, informal, or relaxing setting. Creating a more comfortable setting may actually be beneficial for interviewing suspects as well. Goodman-Delahunty et al. (2014) found the interview setting to be linked to perceptions of non-coercion. Interviews that were conducted in a comfortable setting were associated with an increase in detainees’ disclosure of incriminating information. Goodman-Delahunty and colleagues noted that the comfortable setting may have fostered rapport, which in turn facilitated disclosure.
Seventy-seven percent of investigators rated making the interview room “appear warm and comfortable” as a useful technique, while in contrast, 52% also reported making interview room “appear cold and authoritarian” as useful. This finding may represent a heterogeneity of opinions among investigators, but also suggests that investigators view the usefulness of the room’s coldness/warmth as adaptable between different suspects and interview goals. This speaks for the need for adaptability within the interview contexts, and lack of adaptability was a reason for investigators’ dissatisfaction with their current station’s rooms. Investigators may only be provided cold and authoritarian spaces without an influence over the room’s design. Future research could further examine the characteristics of interviewing settings that investigators would design if they had the influence to do so.
This survey was subject to limitations. First, it was limited in its scope and length. While this was intended to maintain the survey’s brevity, some respondents may have needed additional explanation of probes, or additional data could have been collected using other methods such as interviews. Second, we relied on a snowball recruitment method starting with police contacts who had previous experience with other researchers. Therefore, our sample largely comprised investigators who were, to some degree, familiar with the interviewing literature. This could clarify why the responses aligned with an information-gathering (as opposed to accusatorial) style to interviewing. Still the finding that 52% reported making interview room “appear cold and authoritarian” as useful testifies to the generalizability of our data, as does the range in rank and experience. Third, we relied on investigator’s self-reports. Studies that use alternative approaches, such as shadowing investigators as they prepare for interviews or observing recorded interviews, are needed to more accurately assess the use of contextual manipulation techniques in practice.
In sum, we found that majority of investigators believed the interview setting to be of importance, with most investigators already employing some context manipulation techniques in their practice (i.e., considering seating arrangements, their clothing). This highlights the need for future research to consciously and systematically examine how investigators can effectively use context manipulation techniques. Moreover, this survey provides evidence that investigators are receptive to using context manipulation techniques in their practice, as they consider them useful despite how little they are taught during trainings. Communicating evidence-based findings on context manipulation techniques that, to some degree, investigators already employ, or on an aspect that they already consider to have importance, increases the feasibility of investigators incorporating them into their practice.