ISU professor works to prevent false confessions

Mariah Griffith

ISU professor Christian Meissner is doing research that indicates people may not know as much as they think they do.

In conjunction with an international coalition of labs, Meissner is studying the effectiveness of current interrogation methods and the development of better tactics for the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, or HIG.

“High value in this case means a threat to the U.S. government or population,” Meissner said.

The commission operates under the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Defense. They are tasked with a three-part mission: conducting and overseeing interrogations, coordinating interrogation training procedures between agencies and conducting research to better the interrogation process itself.

“We don’t need to torture. There are better ways to collect information, and we should respond as ethical and rational citizens,” Meissner said.

Meissner stressed the importance of his research, which is in its last year of this grant’s funding. He said governmental agencies have been relying on scientifically unfounded methods of interrogation for years.

“Much of traditional police practice in the interrogation booth is not based on science. It’s based on beliefs about what works,” Meissner said.

Traditional techniques developed throughout time based on tactics that appeared to elicit confessions and compliance from interrogation subjects.

“That unfortunate reality is being replaced by a science-based, operationally-effective, human rights-compliant model of interrogation,” said Col. Steven Kleinman, in a HIG publication.

According to Meissner, traditional practices are changing because too many agencies fail to gather all the evidence possible, and some may even elicit false confessions from innocent people.

A common-knowledge way of identifying lies involves looking for signs of anxiety in the subject. Police and professional interrogators have historically been taught to look for a subject’s hands to be fidgety, their eyes to make certain movements, their voice to crack and other physiological signs of nervousness to indicate guilt.

“It turns out that the anxiety model of deception is not a very good model,” Meissner said.

He said these behaviors are more indicative of the context the subject is in than their truthfulness.

“Being nervous is not as much an indicator of deception as it is an indicator of nervousness,” Meissner said.

According to the new research, some behavioral habits can help interrogators, regardless of agency, in gathering a more detailed account of the truth more often.

Reciprocating information and developing rapport with a subject, using words with positive connotations and asking a subject to tell their story in reverse chronological order are considered effective techniques.

“Telling a lie is quite mentally taxing,” Meissner said.

The increased stress of telling a story backward thus can help identify people who are lying.

“On the other hand, what do you have to do to tell the truth? You just tell the truth,” Meissner said.

Other studies by HIG researchers show better subject responses to a less threatening visual environment, such as one with windows. General kindnesses, such as offering a beverage, also help.

These tactics have been tested at several of the training facilities for interrogators and continue to be implemented as new practices are developed.

“The intelligence community isn’t so interested in getting you to confess,” Meissner said. “They’re interested in who you’ve talked to, who you’ve met with, where you’ve been and what you know.”