The Role of Anxiety During Interrogation

Written By: Reid
Sep 01, 2002

The Role of Anxiety During Interrogation

A psychological model has been developed that describes the relationship between perceived consequences and anxiety during an interrogation.(1) The model states that the interrogator's goal is to legally reduced perceived consequences associated with telling the truth, while also legally increasing perceived anxiety associated with continued denial. The use of the word "anxiety" was carefully selected in this model to avoid confusion about which interrogation techniques would be considered proper or improper within the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation. Despite this, during a recent consultation, an attempt was made by opposing counsel to argue that intimidation techniques are proper during an interrogation because they increase the suspect's anxiety. This is certainly not true, nor is it consistent with our model.

A clear distinction must be made between anxiety and fear. Anxiety describes a generalized feeling of apprehension or uneasiness directed inward, toward the subject. As an emotion, it is closely related to guilt or shame which are also directed inward. Consider a hypothetical person, Tom, whose extravagant lifestyle has caused him to fall behind on bill payments. When he goes to bed at night he worries about how he will pay rent and will he have enough money to buy food. These feelings of apprehension are generalized and directed inward. In addition, because they are self-generated, Tom has control over the level of anxiety experienced (he could move to a less expensive apartment, sell his car, change his spending habits, etc.).

Fear, on the other hand, is a specific feeling of dread that is directed outward, toward the object of a threat. Consider that a man named Jerry has fallen so far behind on his rent that he received an eviction notice from his landlord. Because of the specificity of this threat Jerry may well experience fear and this feeling will be directed outward toward the threat of not having a place to live. Of most importance (for interrogation), because the fear is directed away from Jerry, he does not have a sense of control over the threat in his mind he believes that if he fails to come up with money to pay his rent he will not have a place to live.

Because anxiety and fear both manifest themselves through autonomic arousal it is tempting to classify them on a continuum with anxiety representing the low end of the arousal scale and fear defining the high end. From a psychological and legal perspective, however, this is misleading. Even though anxiety and fear may both result in similar arousal states, with respect to interrogation, the important distinction is the origin of the emotion which subsequently affects the perceived control the subject has in alleviating the emotional state.

The reason anxiety-enhancing techniques are considered legal during an interrogation is that the subject retains full control over his decision to confess. The subject may exercise his free will to reduce the anxiety of an interrogation by walking out of the room, requesting an attorney or telling the truth. However, because fear is the result of an outside threat to the suspect , his or her free will may be impaired. The suspect may well come to believe that the only way to avoid the threat is by confessing. This would be true for both the guilty and innocent suspect which is precisely why courts evaluate the presence of threats in deciding the admissibility of a confession.

Returning to the earlier consultation, the attorney attempted to argue that intimidation techniques merely increased a suspect's anxiety level, and, therefore, should be considered proper within the Reid Technique. The attorney failed to recognize the distinction between anxiety and fear. With this distinction in mind, it may be beneficial to list specific interrogation techniques and compare those which increase a suspect's anxiety (proper) to those which increase a suspect's fear (improper).

"I would hate to see you ten years from now worrying that your wife or employer might find out what you did and having to face the consequences then it's not worth it."Increases anxiety - proper
"Listen, if you don't start telling the truth I'm going to lose my temper and get angry. Believe me, you don't want to get me angry (interrogator slaps hand down on desk top and is 6 inches from suspect's face)."Increases fear - improper
"If this is something you planned out long in advance that tells me you're basically a dishonest person. But, if this happened on the spur of the moment, that would be important for people to know."Increases anxiety - proper
"The fact that you haven't told me the truth about this tells me you're an incompetent mother. You know what they do with incompetent mothers? They take away their children. If you continue to say you didn't do this I'm going to have your children put in a foster home and you will never see them again!"Increases fear - improper
"I'm sure this has been bothering you ever since it happened. You probably haven't slept well at night and perhaps have been smoking and drinking more than you usually do. Put your life back on a normal track -- let's get this thing straightened out!"Increases anxiety - proper
"You know what you are? You're a criminal. What you did is a crime and I could pick up the phone and have you arrested right now. You want to be arrested? You want to spend Christmas in jail?"Increases fear - improper
"I certainly did not have to come in here and talk to you about this. I could have simply turned in my report without your explanation. From talking with you earlier I thought you were a decent person but maybe I was wrong. Maybe you don't care about what people think or about your future at all. If that's the case I'm wasting your time and mine."Increases anxiety - proper
"I'm going to ask you a question and one of two things will come out of your mouth either that you did this or your teeth." (N.Y.P.D. Blue)Increases fear - improper

An important responsibility a professional investigator assumes is to know what statements or behaviors are permissible during an interrogation and which ones are not. Especially when testifying, an investigator must be able to defend the techniques used to elicit a confession. In this regard, explaining the distinction between anxiety and fear may become central to the admissibility of a confession. As a general guideline, if the statement or action addresses what the investigator may do or what might happen to the suspect if he continues to deny involvement in the offense, the statement invokes fear and should be avoided. If the statement or action addresses the suspect's own perception of his future or how others may perceive him if he continues to deny involvement in the offense it invokes anxiety and is probably permissible.

1 - Jayne, B. "The Psychological Principles of Criminal Interrogation"in Inbau, F., Reid, J. & Buckley, J. Criminal Interrogation and Confessions 3rd ed., Williams and Wilkins, 1986
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