The Reid Technique: International Research and the Value of Behavior Symptom Analysis

Written By: Joseph P. Buckley
Apr 27, 2023

Part One: International Research Validates the Core Elements of the Reid Technique

Over the years numerous international research studies have been conducted on the Reid Technique – here are a few that include research from Japan, Korea, Spain, Canada and the US. All of the studies demonstrate the validity of various core elements of the Reid Technique.

  • High-Value Detainee Group Research Validates the Core Principles of The Reid Technique

From the Scientific American (Vol. 26, Issue 23, 2014) an article entitled, "How to Extract a Confession...Ethically" confirms the basic tenant of the Reid Technique - always treat the subject with understanding, empathy, dignity and respect.

In 2009 President Barack Obama convened the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), made up of cognitive and social psychologists and other experts. When the HIG released its findings in a special issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology, the research concluded the following “Coming across as empathetic causes interrogation targets to open up more.”

Since 1947 the core principle of the Reid Technique has always been to treat the suspect with empathy, understanding, dignity, and respect. In our book, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions (5th edition, 2013) in Chapter 6, Qualifications, Attitude, and General Conduct of the Investigator, we state the following:

Treat the suspect with decency and respect, regardless of the nature of the offense. No matter how revolting or horrible a crime may be (such as a sexually motivated, brutal killing of a small child), the suspect should not be treated or referred to as a despicable, inhumane individual. A sympathetic, understanding attitude and interrogation approach is far more effective. In one of many cases that could be used to illustrate this point, a sex offender, after his confession, said, "I would have told the officers about this earlier if they had only treated me with some decency and respect."

Many of the findings of the HIG research confirm the Reid Technique, including their conclusion that the investigator should "tell your target a story about what he or she did, leading the person to believe you already know what happened." This is exactly what we teach in the development of our interrogation theme. In Chapter 13, The Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation, we state that the theme development should focus on describing the suspect’s behavior in light of reasons and motives that will psychologically justify or excuse his behavior - reinforcing "the guilty suspect's own rationalizations and justifications for committing the crime."

  • Japanese Research Confirms Reid Approach

In the Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation, we have always espoused a nonjudgmental, neutral, and objective demeanor by the investigator during the non-accusatory, non-confrontational investigative interview and an empathetic, understanding approach during the interrogation - building rapport with the suspect and letting the suspect know that anyone in similar circumstances might have done the same thing.

Recent research in Japan confirms that building relationships with the suspect "gets the best results" and minimizes the chances of a false confession. Click here

  • Research Indicates a 97.8% Accuracy Rate at Detecting Deception

A study published in Human Communication Research by researchers at Korea University, Michigan State University, and Texas State University -- San Marcos found that using active questioning of individuals yielded near-perfect results, 97.8%, in detecting deception.

An expert using the Reid Technique questioned participants in the first study, this expert was 100% accurate (33 of 33) in determining who had cheated and who had not. The second group of participants were then interviewed by five US federal agents with substantial polygraph and interrogation expertise. Using a more flexible and free approach (interviews lasted from three minutes to 17 minutes), these experts were able to accurately detect whether or not a participant cheated in 87 of 89 interviews (97.8%). In the third study, non-experts were shown taped interrogations of the experts from the previous two experiments. These non-experts were able to determine deception at a greater-than-chance rate -- 79.1% (experiment 1), and 93.6% (experiment 2).

Previous studies with "experts" usually used passive deception detection where they watched videotapes. In the few studies where experts were allowed to question potential liars, either they had to follow questions scripted by researchers (this study had no scripts) or confession-seeking was precluded. Previous studies found that accuracy was near chance -- just above 50%.

"This research suggests that effective questioning is critical to deception detection,” Levine said. "Asking bad questions can actually make people worse than chance at lie detection, and you can make honest people appear guilty. But, fairly minor changes in the questions can really improve accuracy, even in brief interviews. This has huge implications for intelligence and law enforcement. Human Communication Research 40 (2014) 442–462 © 2014 International Communication Association

  • Spain Study Demonstrates 97.9% Accuracy for Behavior-Provoking Questions

In a study out of Spain, researchers demonstrated the value of using behavior-provoking questions during investigative interviews.

The participants were 85 students from the University of Spain. Thirty-five were assigned a naive group and received no instruction on interpreting behavior-provoking questions. Forty-eight were assigned an informed group and received instruction on response models to the behavior-provoking questions. When reading the verbal responses to 15 of the behavior-provoking questions from a verified innocent and guilty suspect in the same case, all but one (97.9%) of the informed group correctly identified the innocent suspect. While the naïve group identified the innocent person above chance levels, there was a statistically significant difference in accuracy rates between the naive and informed group. This study clearly points out the value of using behavior-provoking questions during the investigative interview and being trained in the proper evaluation of the responses. Click Here

(See our YouTube presentation, The Value of Behavior-Provoking Questions: A Case Study)

  • Research confirms the Reid Behavior Analysis Interview (BAI) structure

In our book, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, we devote Chapter 8, Formulating Interview Questions, to the topic of the importance of asking open-ended questions in the investigative interview (BAI). The chapter contains such sections as:

  • • Asking an initial open question
  • • Phrasing open questions
  • • Eliciting a full response
  • • Evaluating the response to an open question
  • • Clarifying the open account
  • • Asking direct questions
  • • Asking follow-up questions

In the workbook that we provide to the students who attend our training programs on The Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation, we devote several pages to the Cognitive Interview process (which is designed to help enhance the victim and/or witness' memory of the event) as well as the importance of evaluating a witness or victim's account by beginning with a broad, open-ended question, such as:

"Please tell me everything concerning your injuries."

"Please tell me everything that you did after 6:00 p.m. last night."

Research has confirmed the value of these techniques. In a study conducted by Dr. Brent Snook and Kathy Keating of the psychology department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, their results, concluded, in part, that "officers interviewing witnesses are potentially reducing the amount of information retrieved by talking too much, asking too many closed-end questions, and failing to adhere to science-based methods for mining memory." The authors furthermore state that "only about 6% of the interviewers' questions were considered open-ended; that is, encouraging a broad range of response beyond a simple yes or no or other narrowly restricted replies. "We estimate that between 20 and 30% of all questions asked should be open-ended," the researchers stated. Click Here

(See our YouTube presentations, Using Open-ended Questions, Parts One and Two)

  • Study of False Confession Cases Confirms Reid Position

False confessions are a rare phenomenon, but they have occurred. One of the interrogation techniques that the United States Supreme Court has sanctioned is the verbal misrepresentation of evidence to a suspect during an interrogation. It has been the Reid position that misrepresenting evidence, in and of itself, is not going to make a "normal" person falsely confess (obvious care must be exercised with juveniles and mentally/psychologically impaired individuals), but that it was always some other element that was the triggering mechanism for the false confession, such as illegal interrogation tactics (physical abuse, threats, promises of leniency, denial of physical needs, denial of rights, etc) and/or excessively long interrogations. A study published in the Criminal Law Bulletin, "A Test of the Unusual False Confession Perspective: Using Cases of Proven False Confessions" confirms this position.

After reviewing numerous false confession cases the author, J.P. Blair, states that "This study failed to find a single false confession of a cognitively normal individual that did not also include the use of coercive tactics by the interrogator." Earlier in the article the author defined coercive tactics as "the use of physical force; denial of food, sleep or the bathroom; explicit threats of punishment; explicit promises of leniency; and extremely lengthy interrogations." In other words, if these illegal tactics are not employed then the likelihood of obtaining a false confession is almost nil. Click Here

  • Court confirms that The Reid Technique consists of proper interrogation procedures

In US v. Jacques the US Court of Appeals, First Circuit, upheld the lower court's opinion that a confession obtained by interrogators using elements of the Reid technique was voluntary and admissible. In the opinion, the US Court of Appeals stated the following:

"Finally, Jacques claims that Mazza and Smythe overbore his will through their use of the "Reid technique," including exaggerating their evidence and minimizing the gravity of his suspected offense, in obtaining a confession. Extreme forms of deception or chicanery by the police may be sufficient to render a confession involuntary.... Nevertheless, "the use of chicanery does not automatically undermine the voluntariness of a confession." Id. This court has consistently recognized that "some degree of deception ... during the questioning of a suspect is permissible."

Specifically, "a confession is not considered coerced merely because the police misrepresented to a suspect the strength of the evidence against him." Clanton v. Cooper, 129 F.3d 1147, 1158 (10th Cir.1997); see also Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731, 739 (1969) (finding that the police's "misrepresent [actions]" of a co-defendant's alleged incriminating statements were, "while relevant, insufficient in our view to make this otherwise voluntary confession inadmissible."); Holland v. McGinnis, 963 F.2d 1044, 1051 (7th Cir.1992) (finding "the fact that the officer misrepresented... the strength of the evidence" to be "one factor to consider among the totality of circumstances in determining voluntariness"); Green v. Scully, 850 F.2d 894, 903 (2d Cir.1988) (finding police officer's "assert[ion] that he already had a strong case against petitioner" insufficient to render the ensuing confession involuntary). As the Seventh Circuit has noted, "[o]f the numerous varieties of police trickery, ... a lie that relates to a suspect’s connection to the crime is the least likely to render a confession involuntary." Holland, 963 F.2d at 1051.

In this case, the agents' statements exaggerating the quality of their evidence, minimizing the gravity of Jacques's offense, and emphasizing the negative media attention that would attend Jacques's trial all fall safely within the realm of the permissible "chicanery” sanctioned by this and other courts. Jacques points to no federal authority supporting a finding of an involuntary confession under similar circumstances... Considered in the full circumstances of this case, Mazza and Smythe's interrogative tactics did not amount to coercion in violation of Jacques's Fifth Amendment rights." Click Here

(It should be noted that in the court rejected the Defense expert’s testimony that the Reid Techniques was coercive – (from the Court’s opinion): “In sum, the proffered expert testimony to the effect that the Reid technique enhanced the risk of an unreliable confession lacked any objective basis for support whatever. Although Professor Hirsch insisted that “there is a wealth of information about the risks of the Reid technique,” he could point to none.”

  • Research Confirms Detection of Deception is Substantially Better than Chance if Viewed in Context

In their research article, "Content in Context Improves Deception Detection Accuracy" the authors (J. Pete Blair, Timothy R. Levine and Allison S. Shaw) report on 10 studies that they conducted regarding the investigator's ability to detect deception when the interview is placed in context. They conclude that “Nonverbal leakage in the studies presented here is constant across conditions because only contextual information was varied (except in Study 6).”

The results of the tests presented here are overwhelming. When judges were asked to make deception judgments with some meaningful contextual information, they performed significantly better than chance and significantly better than 40 + years of research suggests they would. Clearly, knowledge of the environment in which deception occurs facilitates accurate deception judgments beyond what is possible based on observations of nonverbal leakage. Given the large amount of variation explained by the differences in environments (context), deception theories will be enhanced by explicitly recognizing the impact of context."

Clearly, the high accuracy rates are based on the fact that a subject's behavior should never be evaluated as a single determining factor, but always in context - always in conjunction with the case facts and evidence. Click Here

(See our YouTube presentation, There Is No Behavior Unique to Lying)

Part Two: The Value of Behavior Symptom Analysis

Over the years researchers in the academic community have conducted a number of research studies on an investigator's ability to detect deception; more specifically these studies have attempted to determine if the nonverbal and verbal behavior symptoms that are used by practitioners to help them assess the credibility of suspects are, in fact, reliable indicators of truth or deception.

In the overwhelming majority of these studies, the results have been rather dismal, essentially suggesting that nonverbal behaviors (and to a lesser extent verbal cues) offer little value in assessing a suspect's credibility.

In the previously mentioned High-Value Detainee Group report, they stated that “Discerning whether someone is telling the truth or not, in the absence of any other information than that provided within the interview, is extraordinarily difficult. A meta-analysis of more than 120 studies [primarily laboratory studies where ground truth was known] showed that behavioral differences between truth-tellers and liars are few, weak, and unreliable. This laboratory research, with approximately 25,000 participants, showed that when someone tries to determine veracity based on speech or behavior alone, they achieve only about 54% accuracy, where 50% accuracy is achieved by chance [2,3].” (Interrogation: A Review of the Science, High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, 2016)

In light of these results, why would field practitioners place any reliance on the behavior displayed by a suspect during an investigative interview for indications of truth or deception? One reason is that the vast majority of research studies do not mirror the context and structure of real-life interviews that are conducted in the field, and, as a result, have very little relevance to the real world. Here are a few of the problems with the laboratory studies referenced by the HIG:

  • The subjects (oftentimes college students) had low levels of motivation to be believed (in the case of innocent suspects) or to avoid detection (in the case of guilty suspects). In real-life interviews the consequences of not being believed or being detected as guilty are significant.
  • The interviews of the subjects were not conducted by investigators trained in interviewing criminal suspects.
  • The studies did not employ the type of structured interview process that is commonly utilized by investigators in the field.
  • In most studies there was no attempt to establish behavioral baselines for each suspect so as to identify unique behaviors within a particular individual.
  • The research was based on the faulty premise that there are specific behavior symptoms that are unique to truth or deception.
  • There was little consideration given to evaluating behaviors in context. For example, identifying whether specific nonverbal behaviors are appropriate given the verbal content of the suspect’s response, identifying the consistency of a suspect’s statements across time and with known evidence, and so on.

Recent research efforts that have more closely attempted to mirror real life interview circumstances have demonstrated a significant increase in an investigator’s ability to evaluate accurately a subject’s behavior symptoms. Consider the following:

  • High-stake lies are detected at higher rates than low-stake lies.
  • When an investigator understands the context in which an interview is taking place (for example the case facts and background information) accuracy in the assessment of a subject’s behavior symptoms greatly increases.
  • Accuracy in detecting deception with real-life suspects is significantly higher than suggested by studies that use subject’s in a mock crime scenario.
  • Training and experience in the field of behavior symptom analysis significantly

The Distinction between “guilt and innocence” and “truth and deception”

At a recent conference for defense attorneys, one of the speakers was describing some of the behaviors that she said John E. Reid and Associates teaches as being suggestive of a deceptive person. One of the behaviors she said that Reid views as deceptive was the statement, “I don’t know.” What the attorney failed to say (or perhaps, even to consider) was that all behaviors must be viewed in context.

For example, if a person was asked what they did 7 weeks ago on Thursday night between 6:00 pm and midnight, it would be completely reasonable for the subject to respond, “I don’t know.” However, if a person was asked if they had anything to do with killing their next-door neighbor last night, and they responded, “I don’t know,” a very different assessment would be made.

As we pointed out previously, one of the problems with detection of deception research was that “The research was based on the faulty premise that there are specific behavior symptoms that are unique to truth or deception.”

In May 2016 we published on our website an Investigator Tip entitled, “There is no behavior unique to lying” which addresses the issue of behavior symptom analysis in some detail, as well as our YouTube presentation by the same title. From these postings:

“Behavior symptom analysis involves the study of inferences made from observing another person’s behaviors. On a daily basis we make dozens, if not hundreds, of inferences based on behavioral observations, such as that man is angry, that girl likes me, my child is hungry, my son did something wrong, that driver is lost, those two people don’t like each other, Aunt Martha is not taking her medications. This is such a natural phenomenon that it is easy to forget that there is an underlying process leading to these inferences. For example, a six-week-old child is heard crying in the nursery. The child was last fed four hours ago and eats about every four hours. The nature of the crying in the past has been relieved by feeding the child; ergo, the child is hungry.

This article addresses behavioral inferences relating to the detection of deception, primarily in a clinical, controlled environment. Within the scope of detecting deception, there are two broad inferences that are made through behavioral observations. The first involves inferences of guilt or innocence, that is, “Did this person engage in a particular criminal act?” The second involves inferences of truth or deception, that is, “When this person says such and such, is he telling the truth?”

For case-solving purposes, it is important for an investigator to appreciate the distinction between “guilt” and “lying.” Consider the following exchange during an interview:

Q: “Have you ever thought about setting fire to your house for the insurance money?”

A: “Well sure. I think everyone has thoughts like that.”

This suspect’s verbal response to the investigator’s question is truthful. Yet, the content of the response infers guilt with respect to setting fire to his house. Research in the field of behavior symptom analysis generally indicates higher accuracies in identifying guilt or innocence, than truth and deception.

Finally, it is important to understand that some behavioral inferences have a higher probability of being correct than others. Consider that a suspect can clearly be seen on a surveillance video leaving the hotel room in which a woman was found raped and murdered. Upon questioning, the suspect denies ever being in the room. The fact that the content of his verbal behavior is contradicted by the video evidence strongly suggests the suspect’s guilt regarding the commission of the crime.

During this interview, the suspect’s posture was rigid and frozen and, when asked if he had ever met the victim, he dusted off imaginary lint from his trousers. Furthermore, the suspect was wringing his hands and sweating even though the temperature in the room was set at a comfortable level. Although these behaviors are suggestive of the subject’s deception and possible guilt, they are much less so than the documented lie, as evidenced by the videotape.

To appreciate the nature of these inferences, it must be realized that communication occurs at three distinctly different levels:

  1. 1. verbal channel—word choice and arrangement of words to send a message
  1. 2. paralinguistic channel—characteristics of speech falling outside the spoken word
  1. 3. nonverbal channel—posture, arm and leg movements, eye contact, and facial expressions

When evaluating a suspect’s behavior for detection of deception purposes, there are five essential principles that must be followed in order to increase the probability that subsequent inferences will be accurate. Failure to recognize any of these principles increases the probability of making erroneous inferences from a suspect’s behavior.

There are no unique behaviors associated with truthfulness or deception. The behavioral observations an investigator makes of a suspect do not specifically correlate to truth or deception. Rather, they reflect the subject’s internal emotional state, cognitive processes, and internal physiological arousal experienced during a response. The emotional states most often associated with deception are fear, anger, embarrassment, indignation, or hope (duping). The cognitive processes may reveal concern, helpfulness, and confidence versus offering an unrealistic explanation for the crime, being defensive, or being overly polite. There are also internal physiological responses that cause external behavioral responses such as a dry throat, skin blanching, pupillary dilation, or blushing. Observed in isolation, certainly none of these behaviors should cause an investigator to conclude that a subject is telling the truth or lying.

Evaluate the consistency between all three channels of communication. When a suspect sends behavioral messages that are consistent within all three channels of communication, the investigator can have greater confidence in his assessment of the credibility of the subject’s response. However, when inconsistencies exist between the channels, the investigator needs to evaluate possible causes for this inconsistency.

Evaluate paralinguistic and nonverbal behaviors in context with the subject’s verbal message. When assessing the probable meaning of a subject’s emotional state, the subject’s paralinguistic and nonverbal behaviors must always be considered in context with the verbal message. Consider the following two examples:

Question: Mike, have you ever been questioned before concerning theft from an employer?

Response: Well, um, two years ago I worked at a hardware store and they had an inventory shortage so all of the employees were questioned and, in fact, I did take some things from there. [Subject crosses his legs, looks down at the floor, and dusts his shirt sleeve.]

Question: Joe, did you steal that missing $2,500?

Response: No, I did not. [Subject crosses his legs, looks down at the floor, and dusts his shirt sleeve.]

These two subjects displayed identical paralinguistic and nonverbal behaviors during their responses. However, the interpretation of the behaviors is completely different. In the first example, the subject is telling the truth, but he feels embarrassed and possibly even threatened in revealing his prior theft. In the second example, the verbal content of the subject’s response does not explain the accompanying nonverbal behaviors, so the investigator should consider these behaviors as reflecting possible fear or conflict— emotional states that would not be considered appropriate from a truthful subject, given the content of the verbal response.

Evaluate the preponderance of behaviors occurring throughout the interview. One of the findings learned through research is the importance of rendering opinions based on evaluating the subject’s behavior throughout the course of an entire interview. When evaluators in research studies were only exposed to individual questions within the interview, their accuracy was considerably less than when evaluating the subject’s responses to all of the interview questions. Similarly, the confidence of assessing behavior over a five-minute interview will be considerably less than if the behavioral assessments were made over a 30- or 40-minute interview.

Establish the subject’s normal behavioral patterns. Certainly, there are non-deceptive reasons for a suspect to exhibit poor eye contact, respond to questions quickly or slowly, scratch themselves, yawn, clear their throat, or change their posture. Before any of these behaviors can be considered a criterion of deception, the investigator must first establish what the subject’s normal behavioral patterns are. Consequently, at the outset of each interview, the investigator should spend several minutes discussing nonthreatening information (perhaps casual conversation or collecting biographical information) so as to establish a behavioral baseline for the particular subject. Then, as the interview progresses and the subject exhibits behavioral changes when the issue under investigation is discussed, these changes may take on added significance.

The evaluation of a subject’s behavior for indications of truth or deception is a complicated endeavor and should be considered only one factor in the assessment of the subject’s possible involvement in the issue under investigation.

The assessment of a subject’s potential involvement in the issue under investigation should be based on the case facts, evidence, investigative information (such as proving the subject’s alibi to be false), and the behavior displayed by the subject during the investigative interview.

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