The brilliant book Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell inspired the topic of this article. In the book, Gladwell explains “What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know”. It made me question our thinking as forensic practitioners when we interview persons of interest, witnesses and suspects. Do we really “know” the interviewee or are we interviewing strangers? This article explores this notion and suggests better ways going forward.

Julian Bagini and Antonia Macaro wrote in Life: A User’s Manual “…change is not inevitable but omnipresent. Change is not the exception to the rule: it is the rule. To resist it is to the resisting world…” I can safely assume that 2020 and the current pandemic have thought us this as much. Similarly, it is a change that we need to practice and keep front of mind when we conduct interviews as forensic practitioners.

In the early stages of my career as a Forensic Investigator, I was trained on interviewing techniques by the best law enforcement agencies the US and the UK can offer, as well as some of the best trainers in South Africa. Applying these teachings and my own experience, I have interviewed many people over many years. I will therefore summarise the structure of a forensic interview, as I have been trained, as follow:

  • Introduction (introduce yourself and explain the purpose of the interview);
  • Build Rapport (find some common ground between yourself and the interviewee);
  • Questions (probing, concentrate, open-ended, closed, leading/misleading);
  • Summary (test the veracity of information divulged); and
  • Close (keep opportunities for further interviews open).

I have applied the above structure in most interviews I have been part of, which led to various successful investigations to establish the truth as to what has happened, why it happened, when it happened, where it happened and how it happened.

The Forensic/ Investigative Interview is generally described as a conversation with a purpose in which one person (the interviewer) takes responsibility for the development of the conversation. Goals are to obtain information, provide or give information, share and express feelings or emotions, and solving a problem. It is important to consider body language, venue, personal space, be on the alert all the time, listen actively. Although I have applied with conviction the various forensic interviewing techniques with success, I am of the view that one of the biggest mistakes we make is that we assume our version of events based on information collected before the interview and then approach the forensic interview with the mindset that it should confirm/ corroborate what we already know. We think that we can assume the truthfulness of a witness/interviewee based on the assumptions we have made. These assumptions are based on other/extrinsic information collected and influenced by our “judgment” of the interviewee. How many times have I heard/assumed that a witness is dishonest based on the “other truths” collected during the investigation process?

This brings me to an example of these assumptions discussed by Gladwell in Talking to Strangers. It goes something like this –

Judges in New York State have to regularly decide if a perfect stranger deserves his/ her freedom when deciding on the issue of defendants posting bail and if indeed, the amount thereof. Judges are basically asked to assess the character of defendants who are complete strangers to them. The judges are faced with a serious dilemma and many questions which are not easy to answer. The best answer came from a study conducted by a Harvard economist, three computer scientists and a bail expert from the University of Chicago. They have used the records of New York City bail hearings of defendants. They found that of the 554 689 defendants just over 400 000 were released on bail in the period 2008 – 2013. Of the 554 689 records gathered it was found that the judges released just over 400 000 defendants on bail. The same information (defendant’s age, criminal record, etc.) the prosecutors gave to the judges was fed to an artificial intelligence system, which computerised system was required to go through the same

554 689 records and to make its own list of 400 000 defendants to be released on bail. The results of the judges and the artificial intelligence system were not even close. The defendants on the computerised list were 25 per cent less likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial. It was found that the bail decisions of the judges were all over the place, although they had the defendant’s record – ages, criminal record, home address, employer details. More importantly, they have the evidence of their own eyes – all information relayed in the courtroom, prosecutor, defence attorney and the defendant self, to at least get some sort of feeling about the defendant.

Gladwell suggests that we struggle with assessing a stranger’s honesty, character and intent. He wants to convince the reader that strangers are not easy to understand and draw conclusions upon.

I have recently watched a talk on Ted Talks by Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting. She stated that deception can cost billions of dollars – think Enron and other major frauds. Therefore, one would assume that it is important to detect lies, but the converse is also important, i.e. not to attach a lie to a person/ situation when the facts simply do not support it. Meyer further states in her Ted presentation that “…strangers lied 3 times within the first 10 minutes of meeting each other…we lie more to strangers…” This is profound, because regardless of how many background checks and profiling we have done, and irrespective of how much we have studied the information subject to the investigation and interviewee, the fact remains that in all likelihood the interviewee is a stranger to the interviewer/ forensic investigator, and the two of you probably meet for the very first time in life.

Gladwell used the investigation of Bernie Madoff to find some answers to these challenges of engaging with strangers to find the truth. I have deliberately used the word “truth” and not to determine a “lie’ because it is important when conducting a forensic interview to determine what have happened. This would guarantee an unbiased approach. Madoff committed one of history’s biggest Ponzi schemes during the late 1990s and early 2000s.In Madoff’s case, everyone defaulted to truth except for Harry Markopolos, an independent fraud investigator. Markopolos and his team put together charts and graphs, ran computer models, followed the money trail, and found that it was a Ponzi scheme. This however was done over a period of many years. Important, Gladwell mentions that

Markopolos did not default to the truth, [he] saw a stranger for what a stranger was, and therefore did further investigations to uncover Madoff’s deception and fraud. Gladwell also states, “Transparency is a seemingly commonsense assumption that turns out to be an illusion.” One way to interpret this is that a forensic interviewer should listen to what the interviewee has to say but do follow-ups to verify the information shared.

Herewith some suggestions to improve our approach and thinking when conducting forensic interviews with people we in all likelihood encounter for the first time in our lives –

Do not always try to outmanoeuvre/ out-perform the interviewee to prove your manufactured version of events. More importantly, be a good listener and just gather the information as it is being relayed to you. You then use this as part of all evidence collected to prove or disprove the allegations under investigation. Further, as Gladwell suggests conduct the interview with a state of trust to have a meaningful social encounter. This approach will in all likelihood move the interviewee to relax and to tell his truth. It is then your job as a forensic practitioner to verify the interviewee’s truth post the interview. Important, the matter will not be resolved during the forensic interview, even if the interviewee makes a confession/admission; further follow-up investigation needs to be performed. Remember, people like to hear their own voices, therefore allow them to talk, do not interrupt, you will learn much more.

“The Laws [of Human Nature] will make you a master interpreter of the cues that people continually emit, giving you a much greater ability to judge their character.” (Robert Greene, Laws of Human Nature)

(RIMO BENJAMIN, MARCH 2021)