Question Formulation Guidelines: Part I

Written By: Reid
Jan 01, 2001
Asking questions is one of the first language skills a child develops. However, almost all of our question asking skills are developed under the assumption that the person answering our question will tell the truth. Consider questions that might be asked around a family's dinner table: "Ryan, do you need a ride home from the dance or are you getting a ride with someone else?"; "Ben, how did your French test go?"; "Mom, Clare didn't call when I was gone, did she?" When there is a low probability of deception, how a question is formulated is relatively unimportant as long as the other person understands what is being asked.

This is not the case when interviewing a suspect, witness or victim who is motivated to withhold information. Under that circumstance, the investigator needs to phrase questions in such a way that the question will not invite deception and, if the person chooses to lie to the question, the question should stimulate behavior symptoms indicative of that fact. Too often, however, investigators formulate interview questions relying on rules learned for asking conversational questions and may be unaware of how important question formulation is in the role of detecting deception. As an example, each of the questions in the preceding paragraph are improperly phrased for detection of deception purposes. This web tip, as well as next month's, will offer basic guidelines with respect to proper formulation of interview questions.

Avoid asking compound questions

A compound question combines two inquires within a single question. For example, an employee suspected of stealing money from a safe may be asked, "Did anyone ever give you the combination to the safe, or did you ever find it written down somewhere?" If the employee answers "No" the investigator does not know if the employee is denying both areas of inquiry or just one of them. Assume that the employee was never given the combination to the safe but did discover it written down on a wall calender. When answering "No", the employee is telling part of the truth, and therefore, may exhibit very few behavior symptoms suggestive of lying. Contributing to the apparent truthful behavior symptoms will be the suspect's natural tendency to psychologically focus on that part of the question to which he is telling the truth (not being given the combination).

However, had the investigator separated these two areas of inquiry, quite different behaviors may be elicited as the following dialogue illustrates:

Q: "Did anyone ever give you the combination to the safe?"

A: "No, never." [ direct eye contact, on time]

Q: "Did you ever find the combination written down somewhere?"

A: "Did I find it written down? No." [laughs, and covers eyes with hand]

Compound questions are often asked as a matter of efficiency. The investigator realizes that he needs answers to two questions, e.g., "Did you touch your daughter's bare vagina or did she have any contact with your bare penis?" and combines the inquiries to shorten the interview. The additional time spent in separating the two issues, however, may provide valuable behavioral information.

Avoid broadly worded questions

It is the inexperienced parent who asks their child, "How was school today?" The child inevitable responds, "Fine" or "Not bad" and the parent assumes that the child turned in all homework on time and received passing grades on all tests. The seasoned parent will sit down with their child and ask specific questions; "What was your grade on the history exam?"; "Did you turn in your chemistry assignment?"; "How much more work do you have to do on your social studies project?" These specifically worded questions are much more likely to elicit meaningful responses. These examples introduce an axiom of lie detection: It is much easier to lie to a broadly worded question than a question that addresses a specific activity.

Assume that a suspect is guilty of embezzling $12,500 by stealing auxiliary cash funds and writing fictitious reimbursement checks to make the books balance. During an interview this suspect may be asked, "Did you steal any money from the company?"and the suspect is likely to answer, "No I did not." The answer is obviously a lie but the embezzler may exhibit minimal behavior symptoms of deception because of the broad wording of the question. A possible reason for this is that the question is anticipated and does not stimulate an emotional connection to the crime; the closer a question relates to a suspect's crime, the more emotional weight it will hold.

A much more productive line of questioning would be to ask the suspect a series of specifically worded questions concerning the embezzlement scheme. Examples of these include:

"Have you ever taken money for yourself from the auxiliary cash fund?

"Have you left the company with any money that did not belong to you?"

"Have you spent any money stolen from the company?"

"Have you written any checks to a fictitious account?"

"When we contact the people to whom the reimbursement checks were written, will they tell us that they received the checks?

Text books addressing interviewing skills emphasize the importance of asking the right question. What is the right question? Often we do not know until it is asked, but it is never a broadly worded question. A prime example is a preemployment screening interview. If a job applicant is simply asked, "In the last two years have you used any illegal drugs?" almost every applicant will respond, "No". However, if the interviewer asks more specific questions about drug usage, often admissions or at least deceptive behavior, will result as the following dialogue illustrates:

I: "In the last two years have you tried heroin?"

A: "Gosh no."

I: "How about some of the social drugs like cocaine, acid or speed?"

A: "Nope"

I: "In the last 2 years have you experimented with marijuana?"

A: "Not on a regular basis."

I: "When is the last time you experimented with marijuana?"

A: "Quite a while ago."

I: "Did you have any in the last 24 hours?"

A: "Oh gosh no. It was last weekend."

The previously mentioned axiom warrants repetition: It is psychologically much easier for a suspect to lie to a broadly worded question than one which specifically addresses his act of wrong-doing.

Be aware of the importance of question syntax

With the previous guideline in mind, prior to conducting a formal interview, the investigator should prepare a list of specific questions to ask a subject relative to the crime. As an example, consider a homicide case in which the victim (Bob) was killed December 17th. Bob was killed near a farmer's field several miles from his residence. He was shot three times with a .22 caliber weapon. On the day of his death, Bob received a $1000 loan which was given to him in cash but not found on his body.

In preparing for this interview the investigator would want to elicit answers to the following questions:

Did you see Bob at all on December 17th?

Were you present when Bob was shot?

Did you steal Bob's money?

Did you shoot Bob?

Was Bob inside your car on December 17th?

Did you meet with Bob outside of town?

On December 17th were you near the farmer's field?

Were you present when a gun was fired on December 17th?

Do you have access to a .22 caliber gun?

Did you fire a .22 caliber gun on December 17th?

However, if the questions are asked in the order presented, the investigator is setting himself up for failure. In the above example, if the investigator starts by asking the suspect, "Did you see Bob at all on December 17th?" and the suspect answers "No", he is committed to deny the next four questions on the list. In fact, given this denial to the first broad question, an investigator would not even ask the remaining questions within this area of inquiry. Consequently, the investigator is relying on a single assessment of the suspect's behavior relative to his commission of the crime; and that assessment is to a broad question which, as previously stated, is the easiest type of question to lie to.

As previously stated, an investigator is much more likely to detect deception if multiple questions are asked relative to the suspect's possible involvement in a crime or act of wrong-doing. The guideline to follow is that these questions should be arranged from the most narrow inquires to the broadest inquires. With this in mind, the following question syntax presents itself in this homicide case:

Did you shoot Bob?

Were you present when Bob was shot?

Did you steal Bob's money?

Did you meet with Bob outside of town?

Was Bob inside your car on December 17th

Did you see Bob at all on December 17th?

On December 17th were you near the farmer's field?

Did you fire a .22 caliber gun on December 17th?

Were you present when a gun was fired on December 17th?

Do you have access to a .22 caliber gun?

A suspect questioned about this homicide can answer "No" to each of these question without committing himself to a denial to the subsequent questions. This greatly increases the investigator's ability to elicit significant behavior symptoms of guilt or innocence for two reasons. First, it permits the asking of specific questions which are more psychologically difficult to lie to than broadly worded questions. Second, there is an accumulative effect of increased anxiety when a deceptive suspect has lied to several questions within a particular area. By the time the investigator asks broader questions, such as "Did you see Bob at all on December 17th?" or, "Do you have access to a .22 caliber gun?" the suspect is more likely to tell the truth. These acknowledgments, of course, provide important information about the suspect's opportunity and access to commit the crime.

During an actual interview, these questions would not be asked in this specific sequence, but would be separated by the asking of less threatening questions to gain general background information or clarification. The point being made here is that the sequence in which key investigative questions are asked during the course of an interview is critical, and requires preparation.

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