Five years ago, President Obama created the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which has funded studies into the dark science of interrogation:
Not too long ago, as part of a test designed by psychologist Melissa Russano, a young woman in a tank top sat at a table with a look of growing apprehension, hunched protectively over her handbag. A student, she had just taken an exam, and a test administrator was accusing her of cheating: Her answers, he said, matched up with those of another student. The administrator said he had just called the professor running the study and reported that he was not at all happy. “He may consider this cheating, I don’t know,” the man said, with sympathy. “I’m sure you didn’t know it would be such a big problem to be sharing. I probably would have done the same thing if I were in your shoes…. It would ease my professor up if you were seen to be cooperating.” He slid a piece of paper toward her with a confession written on it.
“I don’t think I should sign it. I didn’t do anything,” said the student. Shaking her head, her face pursed in disgust, she signed. As it turned out, she was innocent.
A decade ago, Russano, a professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, set out to design a study that would replicate the social and emotional dynamics of a real interrogation in the lab, where conditions could be controlled. And where, unlike in the messy world of actual cases, the truthfulness of confessions could be easily evaluated. Her study had subjects take a cognitive ability test in a room with another student. Half the time the second student, who was actually working for Russano, would ask for help. The test subjects knew it was against the rules, but most would willingly share their answers. Later, after the test administrator had ostensibly looked over some of the results, he would come back, say there was a potential issue, and leave the subject to stew alone in a room for five minutes. Then some version of the interaction above, taken from a video of one subject, would unfold.
Russano was interested in testing what have long been the twin poles of interrogation styles: “minimization” and “maximization.” They’re forms of coercion that correspond, roughly, to “good cop, bad cop.” Minimization plays down the significance of the crime and offers potential excuses for it — “you just meant to scare her” or “anyone in your situation would have done the same thing.” Maximization plays it up, confrontationally presenting incriminating evidence and refusing to allow any response except a confession. The two are the most widely used tools in the American police interrogator toolkit. The Army Field Manual, which governs all military interrogations, lists approved maximization methods such as “Emotional Fear-Up” and “Emotional-Pride and Ego-Down.”
“Guilty people are more likely to confess” when minimization and maximization are used, she says. “The problem is, so are innocent people.” Minimization alone nearly doubled the number of cheaters who confessed in her studies. But it tripled the number of noncheaters who falsely confessed. The videos of those false confessions make for fascinating viewing. Some are angry, some resigned. One young woman keeps her composure until the test administrator leaves the room with her signed confession, then dissolves into tears.
Russano is still running versions of that first interrogation study, changing the script to see how it affects the outcome. In one iteration, she explored whether minimization could be purged of the implicit offer of leniency. She had her interrogators be sympathetic, even flattering — saying things such as, “I am sure you are a good person, and no one wants to be accused of cheating or breaking the rules” — but without playing down the seriousness of the offense or its potential punishment. They got just as many true confessions that way, but far fewer false ones.
Research has also found that the biggest difference between professional and amateur lie detectors is that professionals are much more confident in their abilities — despite the fact that they’re no better at it.