Minimization, The Trojan Horse of Interviewing? Measuring Perceptions of Witness Interviewing Strategies

Published date01 December 2021
AuthorLaura Fallon,Brent Snook
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2021, Vol. 48, No. 12, December 2021, 1805 –1826.
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© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Measuring Perceptions of Witness Interviewing
Memorial University of Newfoundland
Layperson perceptions of explicit and implicit witness interviewing tactics were examined. Canadian residents (N = 293)
read an interview transcript that contained a tactic (i.e., explicit threat or promise, one of four types of minimization, or no
tactic) that aimed to persuade the witness to change his account. Participants were then asked to rate the amount of trouble
the witness would be in if he (a) changed his account and (b) retained his original account, as well as their perceptions of the
witness, interviewer, and tactic. Results showed that participants who viewed a tactic believed the witness would be in less
trouble if he changed his account than if he retained his original account. All leniency-related strategies (i.e., explicit leniency
and all minimization tactics) were rated as somewhat acceptable and respectful, frequently used, and legal for police to
employ. Implications of these findings for witness interviewing are discussed.
Keywords: witness; police; interviewing; coercion; expert testimony
It is well known that police officers often use coercive tactics in suspect interviews to
elicit confessions and that such tactics have been associated with disastrous consequences
(e.g., false confessions; Kassin et al., 2010). There is also evidence that police officers
sometimes use the same tactics to elicit cooperation from witnesses (e.g., Hickman et al.,
1989; Lamer, 2006; R. v. Morgan, 2013). Emerging evidence also suggests that using coer-
cive tactics with witnesses can have similar negative consequences as they do with suspects
(e.g., false statements that contribute to wrongful arrests; Loney & Cutler, 2016). For
instance, anecdotal evidence from the Eric Morgan fiasco shows that police interviewers
coerced several witnesses to amend their original statements to fit with the investigative
AUTHORS’ NOTE: This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council
(SSHRC) of Canada Doctoral Scholarship (awarded to the first author). Correspondence concerning this
article should be addressed to Laura Fallon, Department of Psychology, Science Building, Memorial University
of Newfoundland, 232 Elizabeth Avenue, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada A1B3X9; e-mail:
1025062CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211025062Criminal Justice and BehaviorFallon, Snook / Implicit Witness Interviewing Tactics
theory by implying to witnesses that there would be negative consequences if they did not
change their stories; these practices contributed to Morgan’s wrongful arrest (R. v. Morgan,
2013). In the realm of suspect interviewing, research indicates that laypeople detect the
implicit messages conveyed by interviewers but do not fully appreciate the problems with
those influence strategies (e.g., Blandón-Gitlin et al., 2011; Kaplan et al., 2020). A recent
study suggests that lay attitudes toward the use of coercive tactics in witness interviews are
no different (Fallon & Snook, 2020). Researchers have yet to examine perceptions of the
message conveyed by these tactics to witnesses. It is therefore important to understand how
those persuasive tactics are perceived, as this can help inform decisions regarding their risk
of eliciting false statements. Thus, the purpose of the present research was to examine per-
ceptions of the message conveyed by explicit and implicit interview tactics in the under-
studied area of witness interviews.
Most of the research on the effect of coercive police interviewing tactics pertains to sus-
pect interrogations. Due to the link between coercion and negative outcomes (e.g., false
confessions and wrongful convictions), the most extreme interrogation tactics are imper-
missible in North America (e.g., Arizona v. Fulminante, 1991; R. v. Oickle, 2000). For
example, due to the high risk of eliciting involuntary statements, police officers are prohib-
ited from explicitly offering leniency to suspects in exchange for statements or threatening
suspects to obtain information—a direct acknowledgment that coercion can overbear the
will of the accused. Police interviewers are, however, generally allowed to make implicit
offers of leniency and veiled threats; strategies that are referred to as minimization and
maximization, respectively. Minimization tactics are statements that serve to downplay the
seriousness of a crime and reduce the perceived consequences associated with compliance
with police requests, while maximization aims to exaggerate seriousness and increase the
perceived consequences associated with not complying with police requests (Kassin, 1997;
Ofshe & Leo, 1997). Notwithstanding their legality, three decades of research indicates that
implicit and explicit tactics increase the risk of compliance—that is, publicly providing an
incriminating statement that the individual knows privately is false (Horgan et al., 2012;
Klaver et al., 2008; Russano et al., 2005). Nevertheless, minimization and maximization are
still used regularly in police interviews in Canada and the United States.
Much of the witness interviewing literature has focused on developing strategies that
allow witnesses to provide as much complete and accurate information as possible (Fisher
& Schreiber, 2017; George & Clifford, 1992; Milne & Bull, 2003; Wells et al., 2006) and
avoiding strategies that could contaminate provided information (Davis & Loftus, 2017;
Memon et al., 1996; Milne et al., 1995). It has largely been assumed within this line of
research that police officers treat witnesses well because they are cooperative and helpful in
solving crimes; this partially explains why so much research attention has been invested in
maximizing the completeness and accuracy of the information they provide. Minimal
research, however, has focused on how to proceed when, in the eyes of the interviewing
officers, a witness is being deceptive.
It is beginning to come to light that a pressing issue surrounding witness interviews mir-
rors concerns about suspect interviews. It seems that the premeditated use of minimization
and maximization strategies is occurring in interviews with witnesses who are presumed to

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