Psychology in Interrogation Tactics

Updated on November 13, 2016


There has been an overwhelming debate over the years regarding the use of various tactics in interrogations and interviews throughout domestic and international scenarios. As far as the media and the laymen are concerned the debate has been over the use of enhanced interrogation tactics on the international front with regards to terrorism, particularly after the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were revealed to have included psychologists. The deeper ethical dilemma is whether or not psychologists have a place in any domestic or military interviews or interrogations, why they would and to what degree. It should be noted that involvement is authorized purely to consultation of psychologists and has been used both domestically and militarily to facilitate the perceived shortest routes to intelligence and confessions. Actual interrogations and interviews are typically under the authority of investigators and military personnel. The question for criminal justice with regards to psychology is fundamentally that of rights. At what point are legal rights null and void when a person is known to have committed a crime or has knowingly been involved with those that commit crimes? When does the line get crossed from legal rights to human rights?

For psychologists, various dilemmas exist with regard to the law and ethics, confidentiality and modality, the use of enhanced interrogation tactics, who the client truly is and whether they can participate without confounding the ideas of beneficence and non-malevolence. For the government, their argument for psychologist involvement is the maintenance of the mental health of the suspect as well as improved intelligence gathering mechanisms. The arguments against include the skepticism surrounding the use of both physio and psychological tactics. Initially, there will be a definition of the terms and layers of involvement previously participated in by psychologists and the actual laws and codes involved in psychology and domestic and national security. There will also be a discussion of the literature that has emanated from the participation of psychology in criminology. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the studies, research and arguments generated by the psychology world and the government regarding the need, use and degree of involvement of psychologists and to suggest ways in which American psychologists can maintain their ethical code without violating the needs of the government or the suspects involved in interrogations and interviews.


First, there should be a discernment between the two types of interrogations that will be discussed and of the involvement of psychology in both. Domestic interrogations are limited to those done on U.S. soil by government agencies placed in authority over domestic regions and peoples. Metropolitan police, sheriffs’ departments, internal affairs and other investigative offices Homeland Security (HomeSec), National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are the primary participants in domestic interviews and interrogations of witnesses and suspects. International interrogations include those performed on foreign soil by military personnel or foreign agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency or Department of Defense. There are several others in both categories and there is occasional crossover geographically, but according to their particular jurisdictions, they are generally confined to these categories of “domestic” and “international.”

Domestic interrogations are determined ethical and legal according to U.S. laws, federal and state legislative bodies and the consulting associations and organizations, such as the American Psychological Association (APA) which has particular merit in this discussion. Domestic Interrogations are confined to the judicial processes and legal ramifications established by the U.S. government and Supreme Court rulings. They are subject to arguable amounts of scrutiny at the time of occurrence but are most intensely debated by the lawyers involved in each particular case in which a defendant was interrogated and under what conditions.

Psychology’s involvement in domestic cases is generally limited to the training of police officers in various tactics and methodology, consulting on behavior analysis and pathology, the qualifying of a witness’s or defendant’s mental competency to participate in the trial, prisoner mediation and, when necessary, the response to trauma relief particularly for victims, children and officers. Within the domestic criminal justice system, the majority of consulting psychologist are not active but former clinical psychologists that have been reclassified as law enforcement officers (Olson, Soldz, and Davis, 2008). There are strict ethical guidelines for psychologists laid out by the APA Code of Ethics that limit involvement due to multiple relationships, conflict of interest, and third party services (American Psychological Association, 2002) in which there is a blurred client description in which the psychologist is seen to work for both the legal organization and the suspect. Prospectively and situationally, opportunities might arise that conflagrate the understandings of exploitative relationships and informed consent issues (American Psychological Association, 2002).

This also weighs in on the code of confidentiality, (American Psychological Association, 2002) in which information that would be obtained in an interrogation setting would be privy to the law enforcement officers as well. Presumed needs of the law enforcement body and citizens at large might put psychologists in a position in which they might have to compromise the safety of the many for the rights of the few in the domestic sphere, so they have been confined to an external consultation role in domestic interrogation procedures. This is to say nothing yet of the debate regarding the exploitation of and degradation of trust in the psychology community on the whole or the risk of psychological damage to the suspect that could potentially be done to suspects.

International interrogations are addressed quite differently with regards to the use of psychologists. In the past, use of psychologists to develop and possibly perpetrate enhanced interrogation techniques such as Dr. John Leso at Abu Ghraib and Dr. James Mitchell was condoned. However, after the media and public exploitation of their techniques much debate has arisen as they have now been redefined as torture by many circles, including the psychology community. Interrogation tactics are now under the authority of international legislative bodies and literature including the The Geneva Convention of 1949’s various agreements regarding the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, the Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, and the Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Obama, 2009). The methodology that must be adhered to is described in the U.S. Army Field Manual 2 22.3, issued most recently by the Department of the Army on September 2, 2006 (Obama, 2009). It should be mentioned that according to the definition of international law, only countries that were involved in the declaration and signing of such international treaties are subject to participation in them, hence the foreign locales of several U.S. black sites.

Psychology’s role has been clearly more defined and nefarious in the international sphere as far as U.S. policy is concerned. After Abu Gharib, a Presidential Task Force was formed within the APA to create the Psychological Ethics on National Security Report or PENS Report. This report largely focused on Principle B of the Code of Ethics regarding Fidelity and Responsibility that psychologists have to society and citing the superseding role as citizens to protect the nation’s security. The first statement endorses the authority of the American Psychological Association Council of Representatives in the 1986 Resolution Against Torture and the 1985 Joint Resolution Against Torture. However, the definition of torture is written vaguely as the cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of persons. Statement four of the PENS Report qualifies psychologists to act according to U.S. laws. The U.S. government does not qualify techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, isolation, stress positions and dietary manipulation as expressly cruel, inhumane or degrading but rather as “enhanced interrogation tactics” that fall within acceptable rules of engagement (Del Rosso, 2014). The Human Intelligence Collector Operations Manual (U.S. Army Field Manual 2 22.3) also instructs human intelligence (HumInt) teams in psychological tactics based on the writings of Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion and his six “weapons of influence.” A matrix of 18 defined approaches has been created based on those weapons and are used to varying degrees to intimidate, urge, corner and encourage useful intelligence and confessions (Epstein, 2014). Despite the polarizing use of the word “weapons,” the PENS Report does not define these “approaches” as malevolent or invasive therefore consultation by psychologists is recommended if useful to the security of the nation, but offers a way out by allowing psychologists to fall back on the Code of Ethics if they feel the techniques cross a line in to murky waters (American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force, 2005). Psychologists are also used to manage the welfare and general psychological health and stability of the detainee or suspect.


The primary arguments behind the exclusion of psychologists from interrogation procedures both domestically and abroad include the Code of Ethics principals of “beneficence” and “no maleficence” citing the psychologists imperative to “only do good” and “do no harm” (American Psychological Association, 2010). The secondary argument is the failure to prove that the usefulness of such psychologically aggressive tactics are particularly consistent and do not incur false confessions on a regular basis (Olson, Soldz and Davis, 2008; O’Mara, 2009; Parashar, 2011). A tertiary argument has been made that due to seemingly apparent violations of the ethical standards listed in section three of the APA Code of Ethics – Multiple Relationships 3.05, Conflict of Interest 3.06, Third-Party Requests for Services 3.07 and Exploitative Relationships 3.08, psychologists should in no way be involved in any and all interrogations in the criminal justice field at any time or in any scenario (Olson, Soldz and Davis, 2008) due to the nature of the tactics employed at any given time and by virtue of the suspect or detainee being in an inherently submissive situation.

Domestically, the tactics employed are typically the Reid Technique, tend and befriend, or officers’ personal versions of information extraction on continuums running from legal to illegal and/or manipulative to physical. The nature of the Reid Technique requires that suspects be assumed guilty until proven innocent and the implication is that the burden of proof is on the suspect themselves. The nature of such a technique is questionable with regards to its obvious confliction with the judicial system and with regards to the potentially psychologically damaging effect the nine-step process may have on either guilty or innocent parties. In truth, its deployment has the potential to be so psychologically devastating that on average some samples have seen a 25 percent false confession rate when DNA evidence was correlated with the suspect (Malloy, Shulman, and Cauffman, 2014). This type of mental manipulation is seen by many psychologists as clearly not “doing good” and despite the approximate true confessions, the possible psychological damage of a potentially 24-hour or more interrogation on a guilty party is clearly inclined to “do harm.” Beyond that, the participation in such an interrogation would be a direct conflict of interest as the psychologist’s client would be perceived by both the suspect and law enforcement agency as the agency and not the suspect, though the responsibility according to the code of ethics is clearly directed at the individual suspect subject to the psychological tactics (Olson, Soldz and Davis, 2008). Various studies have also proven that the nature in which the questions are presented – specifically in the Reid Techniques seventh step of asking alternative questions – can program false memories in the suspects neural pathways (Munsterberg, 2009; Shaw and Porter, 2015). Forensic psychologist Elizabeth Loftus found that use of the book Courage to Heal in conjunction with leading questions in psychology sessions over years led women to create false memories of childhood abuse. Simply by paralleling personality characteristics with abuse victimology and inserting phraseology in questions during therapy sessions such as “And when your father touched you, how did it make you feel?” the therapist could imply that touching had occurred and the women had simply repressed it and forgotten. This led the patients to believe their doctors and press charges on their fathers, when in fact no abuse had taken place (Patihis, Loftus, 2015). Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter were able to completely create memories of crimes individuals had never committed with the use of phrasing and background information manipulated to adhere to the commitment of the false crime (Shaw and Porter, 2014).

The argument regarding the usefulness of psychology, physiology and neuropsychology is questioned on several fronts by both law enforcement and academia. Stress on the whole is known to cause issues with memory and recall (Marks, 2010; Munsterberg, 2009; Parashar, 2011; Shaw and Porter, 2015). The amount of stress involved in any interrogation proceeding, particularly when psychologically taxing, can lead suspects to deceive, make false confessions, recall misinformation, deflect, and use various counter-intelligence strategies. On an international scale, such strategies are now trained by the U.S. military’s SERE program, the Irish Republican Army’s Green Book and Al-Qaeda’s Seventeenth Lesson to withstand the psychological rigors of interrogation tactics, rendering psychologist involvement either influential or unnecessary, depending on the argument (Granhag, Giolla, Stromwall & Rnagmar, 2015; Marks, 2010; O’Donahue, Snipes, Dalto, 2014).

The use of the polygraph has been found to be notoriously inaccurate and more prone to simply create an atmosphere of anxiety more than detect deception (Marks, 2010). The use of psychotropic and neurological “truth serums” such as LSD, scopolamine and sodium pentothal are seen as invasive and occasionally lethal therefore rendering them unethical and not overtly legal (Marks, 2010). Sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation, stress positions and waterboarding are by their very nature physically harmful and have an extreme effect on a person’s memory and compliance levels (O’Mara, 2009). The nature of waterboarding is inordinately prone to cause the detainee to say anything simply to stop the sensation of drowning and, subconsciously, be believed by the interrogator to stop the process of having to cause such physical distress on the subject (O’Mara, 2009). The fact that any of these tactics has the potential to kill the detainee makes it inherently “doing harm” and thus unethical according to the APA and potential torture subject to perspective, therefore reportable according to the PENS Report. That being said, the military and foreign services agencies participating in them have little interest in keeping a psychologist around.


Considering the wide range of polarization and grey areas created by the nature of interrogations and the mandates of psychologists there are several possible alternatives and/or solutions ranging from physiological to semantics. Several studies have sought to find ways in which non-aggressive, non-invasive techniques can be used to procure intelligence without alienating or traumatizing the suspect or detainee. First, there is the use of hormones and pheromones in various ways that can be used to encourage truth telling and detect deception. Second, there are alternative interviewing and interrogation methods such as motivational interviewing and persuasive intervention with use of familiar voice cadence. Last, there is the notion of creating a whole new field specific to the task that is aimed at both the health of the suspect or detainee and the conduct of intelligence gathering, even in extreme circumstances - perhaps a forensic interrogator or negotiations specialist that is not burdened specifically by the grey areas created with regard to beneficence and no maleficence that comes with any clinical doctoral certification.

Studies have shown that aerosolized versions of oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone, can create increased feelings of trust and reduced anxiety and stress (Kreugar, Parasuraman, Iyengar, Thornburg, Weel, Lin, et al, 2012). While use of oxytocin is on the fringe of other “truth serums” the effects are not as intense, it is naturally occurring and not a chemically created substance. It is aerosolized rather than injected and under the perception that it will reduce their stress, it becomes possible to encourage suspects to take it voluntarily. Arguments against have included the abuse of free will and trust relationships (Goodyear, Lee, O'Hara, Chernyak, Parasuraman, Krueger, 2015) but make no mention of voluntary use.

Levels of cortisol and other pheromones have been measured in sweat during truth-lie studies and have found to produce consistent results that detect deception (Stedmon, Eachus, Baillie, Tallis, Donkor, Edlin-White, Bracewell, 2015). If used in conjunction with buccal swab volunteer methods it is entirely possible to conjoin the tests into one underarm cotton pad that can be worn during questioning and produce both pheromone and DNA samples for examination. This is no more invasive or aggressive than current buccal swab techniques and could potentially add additional validation or discrepancy for suspect behavior under interrogation.

Motivational interviewing and persuasive intervention techniques are generally applied in the medical field towards addiction issues, weight loss, phobias and symptomatic denial in mortal diagnoses (Sanderson, 2015) but could likely be adapted to form a less polarizing, more healthy and amenable style of interrogation for domestic purposes than current Reid techniques and similar tactics of guilt-first, innocence-later interrogations. While Reid techniques may be time-tested for the last 50 or so years (Jayne and Buckley, 2015), they are also virtually the only methods tested. Motivational interviewing could apply prospect and attribution theories that can guide suspects to deal with their own guilt and ultimately confess when developed in a positive way of communication that creates a trust between interrogator and suspect. It does not require an intimidation factor and works in a similar way to a doctor getting an addict to accept their addiction and seek treatment (Arechiga, 2015).

Finally, if the protection of the field of psychology is the true merit for argument by psychologists to withdraw from these situations and not their own conscience, then perhaps a new field is in order. There will always be a choice between the lesser of two evils in life and with some consistency, too. Surely there are those with the fortitude and the background that are willing to step up and insure that human rights are maintained and tactics are moderated. To simply dismiss the need for the most educated and experienced group from situations direly in need of wisdom is a crime in itself. Checking out of a dangerous situation for reputation’s sake is to truly create injustice and do harm. There is nothing moral about bowing out to save one’s skin when one can possibly save another’s life, integrity and mental stability.


Ultimately, the use of all interrogation tactics are psychological. There is no true way for psychologists to divorce themselves ethically from criminal justice interrogations because they are the most qualified to monitor the use and abuse of such tactics. It is in the best interest of the suspects and detainees as well as the interrogators and law enforcement to have a moral on-looker and consultant that can balance the need for information with the psychological health of both suspect and interrogator. Whether they continue to call themselves psychologists or not, those that are willing to take on the mantle of walking this fine line will have to come to grips with the notion that without them we are just another amoral country throwing the potentially innocent to the wolves regardless of the end goal. (The wolves being the fickle public eye rather than law enforcement officers working towards the perceived greater good.) When the public demands heads roll for a crime or attack they inevitably will, is it not better that a psychologist or moral guide is present for both the owner of the head and the executioner?

The guidelines of the American Psychological Association and the requirements of the government to maintain security both domestically and abroad appear to be in conflict if one looks from the inside out. However, if one considers that this world is a system and all the people in it truly do rely on each other to keep each other honest, safe and accountable, looking from the outside in there is only a parallel in goals between the two fields of psychology and criminal justice. Despite the disagreements between the two about the relevance and necessity of psychology in criminal justice, it is an unavoidable fact of life that one involves the other so on the points they disagree, accords must be met in other ways such as tactics, techniques and levels of involvement. Definitions must also be created with regards to roles, ethics and nonmaleficence that meet at a compromise that can move forward to create a safer world and possibly a world in which trust and intelligence move more freely and willingly.


American Psychological Association. Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security Report. (Jun., 2005. Rev. 2013).

American Physiological Association. Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (August 21, 2002. Rev. 2010).

Arechiga, A. (2015) “Facilitating Behavior Change.” Behavior & Medicine, 4th Ed. pp. 146-151.

Epstein, R. (2014) “Interrogation Approaches.” Marine Corps Gazette. Vol. 98 Issue 11, pp. DE1-DE4.

Granhag, P., Giolla, E., Strömwall, L., Rangmar, J. (2013) “Counter-Interrogation Strategies among Small Cells of Suspects.” Psychiatry Psychology and Law. Vol. 20:705-712.

Goodyear, K., Lee, MR., O'Hara, M., Chernyak, S., Walter, H., Parasuraman, R., Krueger F. (2015) “Oxytocin influences intuitions about the relationship between belief in free will and moral responsibility.” Social Neuroscience. pp. 1-9

Jayne, B., Buckley, J. “The Reid Technique of Interrogation.” Pulled Sept. 4, 2015.

Krueger, F., Parasuraman, R., Iyengar, V., Thornburg, M., Weel, J., Lin, MK., Clarke, E., McCabe, K., Lipsky, RH. (2012) “Oxytocin receptor genetic variation promotes human trust behavior.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Malloy, L., Shulman, E., Cauffman, E., (2014) “Interrogations, Confessions and Guilty Pleases Among Serious Adolescent Offenders.” Law and Human Behavior, Vol 38(2), pp. 181-193

Marks, J. (2010) “A Neuroskeptic’s Guide to Neuroethics and National Security.” American Journal of Bioethics: Neuroscience, 1(2), pp. 4-12.

Münsterberg, H. (2009) On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology & Crime. Garden City, N. Y., Doubleday p. 91-128.

Obama, B. (2009) Executive Order 13491 -- Ensuring Lawful Interrogations. The White House.

O'Donohue, W., Snipes, C., Dalto, G. (2014) “The Ethics of Enhanced Interrogations and Torture: A Reappraisal of the Argument.” Ethics & Behavior. Vol. 27(2), pp. 109–125

O'Mara, S. (2009) “Torturing the brain.” Trends in Cognitive Science. Vol 13:12, pp. 497-500

Parashar, S., Moreno, J. (2011) “Neuroscientific technologies in security and defense strategies.” Penn Bioethics Journal. Vol. 7 Issue 1, pp. 23-27.

Patihis, L., Loftus, E. Applied Cognitive Psychology (2015) “Crashing Memory 2.0: False memories in adults for an upsetting childhood event.” John Wiley & Sons.

Rosso, J. (2014) “Textuality and the Social Organization of Denial: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and the Meanings of U.S. Interrogation Policies.” Sociological Forum. Vol. 29 Issue 1, pp. 52-74. 23p.

Sanderson, C. (2015) “Designing Persuasive Interventions.” Health Psychology. pp. 525-558.
Shaw, J., Porter, S. (2015) “Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime.” Psychological Science. Vol 26 (3), p 291-301.

Stedmon, A., Eachus, P., Baillie, L., Tallis, H., Donkor, R., Edlin-White, R., Bracewell, R. (2015) “Scalable interrogation: Eliciting human pheromone responses to deception in a security interview setting” Applied Ergonomics. Vol. 47:26-33


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.