Eyewitness Call Review


The BBC ran a show looking at how police use witness testimony to solve crime. Called Eyewitness, it featured a pool of ten people as real-life witnesses involved with experiments around staged incidents. A constant worry was how their individual accounts were so often so contrary.

Whether trying to pinpoint correct facial recognition or accurately logging a series of events, the ten apparently showed typical strain when faced with inevitable brain blanks.

It so reminded me of countless sales manager to sales person conversations in the aftermath of a client meeting. A forum at which only the sales person attended and their line manager now seeks an immediate chapter and verse recital.

In this scenario frustration can suffocate moving ahead. The boss can spiral down a dangerously micro-management path, the rep can kick themselves for leaving out a vital utterance, and the wrong remedial activity is taken.

The key to prosperity and avoiding this malaise is from understanding what the police called their Cognitive Interview structure.

The first amazing insight into how to get the ‘truth’, rather than a version of it, is to acknowledge that people when pressured unwittingly make things up to plugs gaps in their remembered account. Crucially, this is not a deceit, far from it in fact. The mind realises there’s missing info and puts two and two together for us, to ‘help out’, unfortunately and unintentionally making five. Or more typically, three.

The way around this appears to be a step-by-step process that removes the issue of people subconsciously making things up when they’ve lost their train.

Free Recall

The first step is to encourage the person (for witness read salesperson) to talk non-stop about what happened. They should not be interrupted, save to ask them what happened next or a slight clarifying comment. They narrate the chronology as they remember it.

Cognitive Re-instatement

Only when the entire encounter is recounted can you go back to start. The memory is equivalent to several rooms, each with its own doors. Usually these doors need skilled assistance to be prised open. A first way of doing this is to go back to random sections, and deeply examine the specifics of it. The preferred way of doing this seemed to be through visualisation – getting the person to picture what happened in their mind once more.

Contextual Re-instatement

Once careful corroboration and a truly reflective composite description arose, graphic aids came into play. Drawing maps and diagrams was a real winner on the show. This theme can be extended to all sorts of techniques for back in the office over the meeting table, using organagrams, process flows and the like to aid correct recall.

The three pointers strike me as a vast improvement on the random directionless that afflicts many rep-to-boss review chats. The chief benefits were undoubtedly greater accuracy and a useful aside of removing any fogging emotion.

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