Picture it! Enhancing memory recall in interviews

Harriet Witchell - Tuesday, March 17, 2015
reasonable action
Using Sketches to Trigger Memory in Interviews

Professional investigators face one challenging adversary – human memory. The deterioration of memories over time, plus a number of ‘tricks’ that the brain can play when attempting to recall information has often frustrated professionals in the field. The well-known PEACE model of interviewing certainly assists workplace investigators to structure a cogent and methodical interview. Yet how can the quality of retrieved information be enhanced, let alone be guaranteed as factual? These qualitative problems have led to the use of innovative methods for increasing the integrity of memories retrieved from the human mind. We examine one of these methods – the use of sketches to trigger memories in the interviewee. 

Recalling PEACE

In the early 1990s, British psychologists and law enforcement professionals worked together to enhance the investigative interview process. The PEACE model encouraged interviewers to take a methodical approach to interviews, stepped through as follows: 

  • Prepare (Understand the problem, key personnel and the overall investigation plan) 
  • Engage (Establish rapport and a relaxed environment prior to questioning) 
  • Account (Obtain information via a variety of methods) 
  • Closure (Summarise, and invite interviewee to add further material) 
  • Evaluate (Assess the quality and relevance of material in relation to overall plan)    

The PEACE method provides many benefits that were previously unavailable to workplace investigators. Yet some shortcomings have included the length of time needed to complete interviews, as well as some persisting problems with memory quality. With our understanding of human cognitive processes increasing with each decade, some innovative methods for cross-checking memory data have greatly assisted the interviewer’s quest for reliable information. 

The fallible memory

Noting phenomena such as reconstructionist tendencies and possible false memory in humans, researchers of cognitive interviewing practices began to see that unintentional fabrication was a part of many interview scenarios. Memory deteriorates over time, plus the mind tries to fill gaps with embellishments where necessary. How could these difficult aspects of memory be reduced? At the Account phase of PEACE, it was known that using multiple ways of accessing an interviewee’s memory of an event worked well to improve data quality. 

At first, the interviewer might ask for a chronological recount. Next, they would perhaps ask the interviewee to discuss a few events in reverse order. And this could be followed with recall of a mental image of a relevant site, followed by a description given in words. This cross-checking of approaches has proved to be invaluable for the triangulation and more accurate retrieval of memory data. So where might sketches fit in? 

A sketched moment
As part of the arsenal of interview techniques available to the workplace investigator, an interviewee’s visual sketched recall of an incident can prove invaluable. Talking, by itself, will sometimes not be a good fit for particular interviewees. Some have limited English and/or vocabulary resources, leading to a stilted and possibly low-value interview outcome. And even where an interviewee is voluble in their recount, sketching key places or moments can greatly strengthen the utility of memories retrieved. 

The cognitive interview process involving a sketched component might flow as follows: 

The interviewee reveals that something took place in the car park with a manager. A workplace interviewer could ask for a sketch of the carpark, complete with any people and vehicles noted (stick figures and rectangles are fine!) These could be labelled with names, colours, distances, doorways and other relevant features. It is important to maintain open questions and an encouraging tone. 

The sketched result might then jog a memory, raise further questions and/or allow momentum in the interview to continue flowing. It might also confirm or bring into question the interviewee’s earlier responses and allow space for any clarification. A door has opened, and facts can begin to be verified and tested. 

Multiple methods

Sketches obtained during a PEACE-based interview process can add significantly to both the interview itself and the information retrieved. At the stages of Preparation and Engagement, it helps to be prepared with appropriate materials and an idea of which questions might be suited to this method. Let the interviewee know that some sketching might be an option during the interview. With the Account phase, cross-check any sketch with any other memory-retrieval data, such as chronological recount. And at Closure and Evaluation, assess how or if the method assisted in heightening the quality of the overall interview outcomes. Adding sketched memory to your interviewing tool-kit could certainly prove a useful method for gaining the best available information for your report.

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