Selecting the Proper Alternative Question

Written By: Reid
Sep 01, 2004

The Reid Technique of interrogation relies on two important underlying psychological principles. The first is that it is much easier for a person to tell the truth if that person is allowed to couple his admission with some moral justification. Consequently, we teach that an investigator should suggest possible moral justifications which allow the suspect to save-face when telling the truth. Second, it is psychologically wrong to expect a suspect to suddenly break down and tell the complete truth about his crime. It is often necessary to allow the suspect to initially make a first admission of guilt and then attempt to develop the full confession. In the Reid Technique the first admission of guilt is elicited by asking an alternative question.

An alternative question offers the suspect two choices concerning some aspect of his crime, accepting either choice results in the first admission of guilt. Examples of an alternative question include, "Did you plan this thing out for months in advance, or did it just happen on the spur of the moment?" or, "Did you steal that money to buy drugs and booze, or was it used to help out your family?" As these examples illustrate, the choices presented in an alternative question generally contrast an undesirable characteristic of the crime to one that is desirable. Because the incriminating implication of either choice is very transparent it would be appropriate to ask, "Why doesn't the suspect simply reject both choices and deny involvement in the crime?" Indeed, some guilty suspects do. But for many guilty suspects an alternative question offers an impetus or incentive to tell the truth.

The psychology of the alternative question relies on the importance human beings place on their self-concept and esteem. No guilty suspect wants the investigator or other people to believe things about his crime that are not true. To preserve his self-image, the suspect feels a strong need to correct erroneous assumptions by the investigator. Actual examples of this include an interview of an ex-con where I made the comment, "I see you have served four years at (state penitentiary)." The suspect immediately corrected me and said, "It was only 3 years 9 months!" During another interview the suspect indicated that her husband was no longer living with her. I asked, "Are you divorced?" She angrily corrected me and stated, "No. We're merely separated." These examples illustrate the strong inner drive within each of us to protect our self-image.

It is, therefore, not surprising when a child abuse suspect is asked, "Did you have contact with those children to psychologically and emotionally scar them for life, or was it simply to display love and affection toward them?" that the suspect anxiously explains to the investigator that his sexual contact with the children was intended to show love and affection. Even though the suspect knows full well that he is admitting guilt when he makes this statement, he does so to reject the implication that his intention was to cause psychological harm to his victims. To summarize, we believe that the impetus for a guilty suspect to accept the positive alternative question is to reject the implications of the negative choice. If our understanding of the alternative question is correct, it suggests a number of guidelines to consider when selecting an alternative question.

1. The negative choice should not be true. If the impetus behind an alternative question is to refute the implications of the negative choice, there is no psychological advantage realized if the undesirable (negative) choice reflects the truth. In an actual instance a single mother was interrogated concerning the theft of money from her employer. Factual information suggested that she needed this money to help support and care for her son so the alternative question presented during her interrogation was, "Did you blow this money on drugs or did you take it for your son?" Repeated efforts to encourage the suspect to agree that the money was needed for her son were unsuccessful. Finally, the investigator switched to a different alternative question. He asked, "Have you stolen money from every job you've ever worked, or was this the first job you've taken money from?" At this point she readily agreed that this was the first job in which she had stolen money. Once this initial admission was made, the full truth surfaced. As it turned out the money she stole did not go to her son at all. Rather, it went to buy heroine!

Why did the initial alternative question fail to elicit an admission? We believe that the original choice did not emotionally motivate the suspect to refute the implications that the money was stolen to buy drugs (something she knew was true). Once the alternative question addressed something the suspect knew was not true (stealing from every job she has worked) there was an immediate incentive for her to let the investigator know that this was the first job she had stolen money from.

2. The negative choice must appear credible to the suspect. If a suspect is not at all concerned that people may believe the negative alternative, he is certainly unlikely to incriminate himself by accepting the positive choice. As an example, consider a suspect who is being interrogated on the issue of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. During this interrogation a possible alternative questions might be, "Were you paid by someone to strike that woman where you did this out of greed, or did you just leave the scene because you were scared?" Depending on the suspect's background and the circumstances of the crime, the suspect may not be at all concerned about people believing that he was some sort of paid assassin. If a suspect is not concerned that others may believe the negative choice, there is no incentive for him to refute it. Under this circumstance, the suspect is likely to reject both alternative questions and maintain his innocence.

A more productive alternative question to ask in the hit and run case might be, "Were you aiming your car at that lady because you were upset with her, or were you just unable to stop in time because of the dark clothes she was wearing?" The credibility of the negative side of the alternative question could be reinforced by taking about the prevalence of road rage or the effects of alcohol on a person's emotions. If the suspect accents the possibility that others might believe the accident may have been an intentional act of road rage (when in fact it wasn't), he may then be motivated to reject the implications of the negative side of the alternative question, i.e., let the investigator know that he simply was unable to stop his car in time.

3. Accepting either alternative choice must result in an admission of guilt. While the positive side of an alternative question should be attractive to the suspect, the attraction should not be based on absolving the suspect of criminal responsibility for the crime he committed. It is not difficult to get a suspect to accept the positive side of an alternative question if there are no adverse consequences associated with that choice. The following are examples of improper alternative questions because accepting the positive choice does not represent an admission of guilt. (Notice, also, that the negative choice represents the truth):

"Did you rob that man or do you just know who did?"

"Did you intend to remove that document or did it accidentally end up in your brief case?"

"Did you kill your girl friend, or do you just feel responsible for her death?"

A suspect who acknowledges the positive side of any of the preceding alternative questions has not provided the investigator with any evidence of his guilt. Furthermore, once a suspect accepts a positive alternative question that holds no admission of guilt, the attraction of avoiding consequences for his crime may be so strong that, absent further evidence, it may not be possible to persuade the suspect to tell the complete truth about his crime.

In conclusion, selecting the proper alternative question is an important consideration in developing an interrogation strategy. The impetus for selecting the positive choice comes from the suspect's desire to refute the implications of the negative choice. Because of this, the negative choice should not be the truth, but must be credible in the suspect's mind. Finally, both choices must represent an admission of guilt. An experienced interrogator goes into an interrogation with several possible alternative questions in mind. If the suspect does not relate to the first one presented, the interrogator is mentally prepared to develop and present another alternative question in the effort to learn the truth.

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