Image-Based Techniques in The Cognitive Interview

Children's reports of events based on their free recall are quite accurate, but young children provide very limited amounts of information. Therefore, the task of the interviewer is to encourage children to provide more information without asking leading questions which risks increasing error. The cognitive interview involves techniques designed to elicit from a child as complete a narrative report of the event as possible. Although much in the cognitive interview is similar to other suggestions about how to conduct an effective and nonsuggestive interview, the cognitive interview is distinguished by its memory-jogging strategies.

Several research studies on the cognitive interview indicate that it does improve the accuracy and increase the amount of information (Fisher & McCauley, 1995; Powell & Thomson, 1994). Studies with children also suggest that, in comparison with a standard interview, the cognitive interview results in more correct facts recalled without an increase in errors (Fisher, 1995; Fisher & McCauley, 1995; Saywitz, Geiselman, & Bornstein, 1992). There are limitations in generalizing from this research since none of the children were younger than 7 and the events have not involved personally experienced, traumatic events. In addition, the interviews in the research studies took place shortly after the event, but in the real world, investigatory interviews may take place months later.

Nevertheless, several of the image-based suggestions may be useful in interviewing children about alleged abuse. Modifications of the techniques are necessary with young children since some of the specific techniques are not appropriate with children. For example, before a certain age, children do not appear to understand some of the memory strategies (Bekerian & Dennett, 1995).

One memory retrieval technique involves attempts to recreate the original context or circumstances. The witness is instructed to mentally recreate the environmental, cognitive, physiological, and affective states that existed at the time of the original event (Fisher & McCauley, 1995). We have used family photographs, favorite toys, and familiar objects to help young children picture the circumstances, persons, and feelings surrounding the alleged events. We then encourage free narrative recall by asking them to tell everything that happened that they can remember.

For example, a father who had not seen his 4-year-old son in over a year provided a favorite toy that had been left with him. The child remembered the toy with affection and began talking about playing with his father. Another child, who initially recalled very little about life with her father, recalled several relatives and incidents when looking at family photographs. A child was able to talk about when he was in day care after looking at several photographs of the day care center. The value in such objects lies in tapping into the child's free recall. If suggestive and leading questions are asked about the objects, the risk of error in greatly increased.

Another way of reinstating the context is by imaging. The child can be asked to close her eyes and try to picture the event and the circumstances surrounding it. She can be asked to report everything she pictures in her mind about it, no matter how small. With children, however, it is important to stress that they should only describe actual events that have happened.

Children who are old enough to understand the instruction can be asked to describe the incident from a different perspective, that is, as if someone else were watching, what they would have seen. They can be asked what the incident would have looked like from the doorway or from the ceiling. Since the words "imagine" or "pretend" may be perceived as an instruction to fantasize, these terms should be avoided with young children.

For children who are old enough, backward order recall may allow increased information to be produced. The child can be asked to picture the events in backward order beginning with the end, then the middle, and then the beginning. After each response, the child is asked, "What happened right before that?" This technique, however, will be confusing to younger children who have not developed the necessary knowledge about time and sequencing.

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