2.2 Cognitive Techniques

Psychological research has shown that the ability to recall important incidents can be enhanced by using some basic cognitive techniques. Having established rapport with the individual, he or she should be allowed to give a free narrative about the events. The interviewer should allow the individual, as much as possible, the time to describe what happened in his or her own words. Clarification of points is permissible but not direct questioning which might break the individual’s recall. Only after the individual has finished his or her narrative should direct questions be asked to clarify points. The survivor of torture should know that it is acceptable to say: ‘I don’t understand the question,’ or ‘I don’t know the answer.’

The quality of the information gained can be improved by some specific techniques. Firstly, in a clinical setting in which time allows it, the individual should be told to describe everything surrounding the time of ill-treatment (for instance describing the events and process of being taken into detention), even if it does not appear directly relevant to him or her. This might relate to events that could be more important than the individual realises. Secondly, as he or she relates them, this can bring other events that are more relevant into his or her mind. It helps if he or she is encouraged to recall the context in which the events happened.

Having encouraged the interviewee to describe the events in a free narrative, in chronological order, the interviewer can seek more detail by asking questions in a different order. For example, by reversing the order: ‘You were telling me …, what happened just before that?’

Another tool is changing the perspective, which means trying to describe the events from another point of view, for example if the interviewee is sufficiently well-educated the interviewer could ask: ‘How would a tailor describe what the man was wearing?’ or ‘When you were arrested at the demonstration, what would a spectator have seen?’

It is important to remember that different cultures have different concepts of what is normal behaviour in an interview. In some societies it is considered polite not to look directly into the eyes of someone in a position of relative authority (such as an interviewer), whereas in other cultures such behaviour is considered to be a sign of dishonesty. People from some cultures find constant hand movements a normal part of communication, whereas those from others find them distracting. Personal space varies between and within cultures, and what might be normal between colleagues could feel too close in an interview setting. This could make the individual feel anxious, and behave in a way that the interviewer perceives as uncooperative.