With the current global pandemic set to increase investigators’ reliance on telephone interviews, it may be time to look back at research into a simple technique that can enable investigators to increase information yield from telephone-based investigative interviews, using what is known as the model statement.
The model statement speaks to the fact that interviewees are likely to provide more information in response to investigative questions, if they first have an understanding of how much detail is required. The model statement involves delivering a brief narrative example of the level of detail that might be provided by an interviewee in response to open questions. A neutral topic may be used as a model statement example, to ensure the interviewee is not inadvertently influenced in respect of their account.
A model statement can be pre-recorded, or it can be read to the interviewee as part of a preliminary explanation at the commencement of the call. The model statement may be tailored to suit the context of the call – for example; if the interviewee has witnessed an event such as a theft from commercial premises, the model statement can be delivered using any other episodic event as an example.
An example model statement could include a narrative such as, “….by way of example, to describe getting into my car this morning, I could describe to you that on approaching my car on foot, I took my key fob from my right trouser pocket and with my right arm outstretched, I depressed the white coloured unlock button using my right thumb. As I did so, I heard a dull thud emanate from my car and I recognised this sound to be my car unlocking. I then moved to within a metre of my driver’s door and I leaned out with the fingertips of my right-hand facing upwards and placed my finger tips underneath the driver’s door handle. I then lifted my fingers at a 45° angle towards my head, at which point the driver’s door opened.”
A research study in the context of telephone interviews in the insurance field (See Leal et al, (2015)) examined the benefits of deploying model statements when conducting telephone interviews with insurance claimants. The study, undertaken by researchers from the University of Portsmouth (UK) and Florida International University (USA), was designed to examine two research areas.
Firstly, in a control study, mock claims were processed into an insurance company’s claims system together with real claims, and telephone interviewers were tasked with conducting telephone interviews with claimants ‘blind’ as to whether they were dealing with a legitimate claimant (truth-teller) or a mock claimant (liar). In this part of the study, in line with broader research outcomes, investigators performed at little above chance in trying to determine false claims from the truthful claims.
Within the second experimental part of the study, investigators provided a model statement to ‘truth-teller’ and ‘liar’ claimants, delivered via a recorded 734-word audio narrative. The model statement was provided before the interviewees were invited to respond to a series of open-ended questions via a similar telephone interview. Researchers sought to measure not just the amount of information provided by the interviewees, but also the plausibility of the information they provided.
Although plausibility was acknowledged to be a subjective concept, it was robustly tested by five student coders who were blind to the veracity of the resultant transcripts. Two questions were used to test plausibility; ‘Could this incident have happened as described’? and ‘Could an honest interviewee remember the amount of detail as described’?
In this part of the study, researchers found that both truth-tellers and liars provided twice as much information in response to questions, when exposed to the model statement prior to questioning. What was interesting, was that the truth-tellers sounded more plausible than the liars.
At IMS we strongly advocate against the popular trend of focusing on deception detection. In our experience, interviewers can better spend cognitive effort gathering accurate and reliable accounts by focusing on the core skills of rapport, questioning, and listening, without trying to gauge whether an interviewee may be intentionally deceiving them.
Whilst the study’s plausibility finding may be of interest, in any interview, whether face to face or via telephone (or video conferencing) information is key. Any technique which increases the amount of information obtained will no doubt prove useful and enable an investigator to complete a more comprehensive credibility assessment post-interview. Any additional information can be verified against other sources of known facts, increasing the chances of deception being exposed evidentially.
Ahead of your next telephone interview, take time to map the model statement into your interview plan and try using it as part of your engage and explain process. For the sake of adding 1 or 2 minutes to the explanation of your ground rules once the interview starts, you may be pleasantly surprised with the additional information the model statement may yield.
Leal, S., Vrij, A., Warmelink, L., & Vernham, Z. (2015). You cannot hide your telephone lies: Providing a model statement as an aid to detect deception in insurance telephone calls. Legal and Criminological Psychology, pp. 20, 129–146.