The foundation for all efffective interrogation techniques - projection and rationalization

Written By: John E. Reid and Associates
Jan 11, 2021

As a youngster we have all had the experience of hitting one of our siblings, and then when questioned by our parents we justified our actions by saying, “he hit me first.” We all learned from our early life experiences that if we can shift the blame for what we did to someone or something else it might mitigate our punishment. The genius of John Reid and Fred Inbau is that they took advantage of this common human experience and developed the foundation of a successful interrogation - projection and rationalization – almost 60 years ago. This fundamental principle serves as the foundation of The Reid Technique and all successful interrogation techniques.

In the first edition of their book, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, published in 1962, they recommended that one of the most effective ways to create an environment in which the subject feels comfortable telling the truth about what they did is to psychologically shift the blame for what the subject did on to some person or circumstance other than the subject themselves; specifically shifting the psychological blame to the accomplice, victim or “anyone else upon whom some degree of moral responsibility might conceivably be placed for the commission of the criminal in question.”

Most of us, in an effort to reduce our anxiety, guilt or loss of self-esteem when we do something wrong will try to rationalize or justify our behavior. Rationalization is essentially the act of re-describing what a person does in such a way as to avoid responsibility for the consequences of their behavior…the employee who has been embezzling funds from a bank may rationalize the thefts by stating that the money was only being borrowed, and that eventually it would have been repaid.

Projection typically involves an individual shifting the blame for their own thoughts or actions onto another person, place or thing. A robbery suspect who accuses the victim of flaunting their wealth and engaging in ostentatious behavior is projecting the crime back on to the victim……an employee may reduce anxiety associated with theft by blaming the employer for not paying him overtime…in his mind no theft occurred, he was just taking what was owed to him.

So in view of the above basic human psychology, the foundation of the interrogation process in the Reid Technique is to reinforce the guilt suspect’s own rationalizations and justifications for committing the crime….the speeder believes that the speed limit signs were poorly posted or that some perceived emergency existed which necessitated the speeding, or that (justification) the driver was not going that much over the limit and other drivers were going much faster than he was or the driver may blame his passenger for engaging him in conversation that was distracting.

All criminal deception is motivated through the hope of avoiding the consequences of telling the truth. Research has indicated five “techniques of neutralization” used by criminals to reduce perceived consequences of their behavior:

  1. Denial of responsibility (blame alcohol, drugs, stress)
  2. Denial of injury (the victim wasn’t really hurt; the company won’t go bankrupt)
  3. Denial of victim (he deserved to be robbed; she wanted to have sex)
  4. Condemnation of the condemner (everyone else steals)
  5. Appeal to higher loyalties (suspect did not do it for himself)

An essential part of this process, what we call theme development, is to suggest such face-saving excuses for the subject's crime as projecting blame away from the subject onto such elements as financial pressure, the victim's behavior, an accomplice, emotions, or alcohol.

There are two types of acceptable minimization that can occur during an interrogation:

  • minimizing the moral seriousness of the behavior
  • minimizing the psychological consequences of the behavior
The third type of minimization is to minimize the legal consequences of the subject’s behavior, which we teach never to do.

Our training is very specific that these excuses (interrogation themes) should minimize the moral seriousness of the subject's crime by offering psychological excuses for the crime but not remove legal consequences.

Consider the following excerpts from Criminal Interrogation and Confessions (5th edition, 2013):

“During the presentation of any theme based upon the morality factor, caution must be taken to avoid any indication that the minimization of the moral blame will relieve the suspect of criminal responsibility.” (page 205)

“As earlier stated, the interrogator must avoid any expressed or intentionally implied statement to the effect that because of the minimized seriousness of the offense, the suspect is to receive a lighter punishment.” (page 213)

“In applying this technique of condemning the accomplice, the interrogator must proceed cautiously and must refrain from making any comments to the effect that the blame cast on an accomplice thereby relieves the suspect of legal responsibility for his part in the commission of the offense.” (page 227)

In view of our discussion regarding rationalization and projection, when you are going to conduct an interrogation in the future and you are planning your approach, you should yourself two questions:

Where can I place some of the blame?
How can I psychologically justify their behavior?

Finally, here are a few court decisions that support the approach of minimizing the suspect’s moral culpability. The Massachusetts Supreme Court stated that “….Nor have we concluded that an interviewing officer's efforts to minimize a suspect's moral culpability, by, for example, suggesting theories of accident or provocation, are inappropriate, or sought to preclude suggestions by the interviewers “broadly that it would be better for a suspect to tell the truth, [and] ... that the person's cooperation would be brought to the attention of [those] involved.” Commonwealth v. Cartright [2017]

The Supreme Court of Canada stated: "There is nothing problematic or objectionable about police, when questioning suspects, in downplaying or minimizing the moral culpability of their alleged criminal activity. I find there was nothing improper in these and other similar transcript examples where [the detective] minimized [the accused’s] moral responsibility.” R. v. Oickle, [2000]

In Gomez v. California [2019] the US District Court stated the following:
“Investigators are permitted to ask tough questions, exchange information, summarize evidence, outline theories, confront, contradict, and even debate with a suspect… They may accuse the suspect of lying … and urge him or her to tell the truth. Investigators can suggest the defendant may not have been the actual perpetrator, or may not have intended a murder victim to die. They can suggest possible explanations of events and offer a defendant the opportunity to provide details of the crime…..Suggestions by investigators that killings may have been accidental or resulted from a fit of rage during a drunken blackout fall far short of promises of lenient treatment in exchange for cooperation.”

For additional discussion about the Reid Technique interrogation process see our September/October Investigator Tip: The fundamental foundation of the Reid Technique of Interrogation: Empathy and Understanding.

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