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What CIA interrogation techniques can you use to collect the truth? What are the best questions to ask in an interrogation?

CIA interrogation techniques are centered on asking the right kinds of questions: short, relevant, and loaded. Learning these techniques can help you separate truth from lies in many contexts.

Read on for more about CIA interrogation techniques and sample questions to ask in an interrogation.

Ask the Right Questions

Certain types of questions are more effective than others. The “right” kinds of questions conserve your mental energy—saving it for the intense focus required in observing both the verbal and behavioral aspects of your interviewee’s response. Effective questions also increase the mental energy your interviewee must spend on his responses—making it harder for him to create false details, keep his story straight, and figure out ways to get around directly answering you. Consider using these CIA interrogation techniques when deciding what questions to ask in an interrogation.

(Shortform note: It can be difficult to define or quantify the mental energy you use in a conversation, but Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) researchers suggest an answer: They say you can only hold three to seven pieces of information—which can range from a single word to a string of related numbers, like a phone number—in your head at once. Ideally, your questions will force your interviewee to hold too many pieces of information in their head, leading to them making mistakes.)

There are three traits of effective questions: They’re relevant, they’re short, and they’re loaded. Let’s explore each trait in detail.

Trait #1: They’re Relevant to Your Goal

If you’re in a conversation with someone, you’re likely trying to determine whether they’re telling the truth about something specific. To save your mental energy, only ask questions that pursue the goal of obtaining this specific information.

For example, you may be in situations like learning whether a job applicant left her previous job voluntarily or was forced to leave, or asking your son whether he finished all his chores. In both cases, a question like, “Where did you eat lunch today?” fails to prompt a response relevant to the information you’re seeking.

(Shortform note: This isn’t to say you can’t ask these types of questions at all—you’ll need to ask nonrelevant questions in any conversation, like when talking to coworkers or family. This piece of advice only refers to the part of the conversation where you’re looking for specific information and will be watching and listening for signs of deception after your questions. Outside of this part of the conversation, feel free to ask irrelevant questions—but don’t waste your mental bandwidth closely observing the replies.)

Trait #2: They’re as Short as Possible

By asking brief questions, you encourage the interviewee to respond quickly and instinctively—often leading to slips or inconsistencies in their story that might indicate a lie. On the other hand, if you ask long questions that give the interviewee time to think while you’re speaking, she can more easily create false details to fit her existing narrative.

(Shortform note: Research suggests that forcing a quick answer may not be as useful to pinpointing deception as the authors say. Not only are people biased to believe a quicker response is more truthful than a slower response, giving you another bias you need to overcome, but an interviewee under pressure may be more likely to give an answer that makes them look virtuous—rather than giving you the truth.)

Trait #3: They’re Loaded, Not Leading

Leading questions imply one possible, simple answer—usually “yes” or “no.” On the other hand, loaded questions imply that you know some information about the interviewee and what his response should be. This causes your interviewee to spend a lot of mental effort on trying to figure out how much, and what kind of, information you know and carefully deciding on an answer that won’t conflict with that information. 

For example, “You did X while I was gone, didn’t you?” is a leading question that suggests a simple “yes” or “no” response. On the other hand, “What did you do while I was gone?” is a loaded question that implies you know that something happened and requires a longer answer.

(Shortform note: Even though leading questions generally won’t clog up your interviewee’s mental bandwidth like loaded questions will, they can be useful in some cases. For example, if you simply need a clear “yes” or “no,” a loaded question might introduce too much ambiguity to lead to the specific answer you need. A leading question will deliver the response you need, and you can still watch for signs of deception in your interviewee’s short reply.)

Avoid the Wrong Questions

Just as asking the right questions can make you more effective, asking the wrong questions can hinder your ability to spot deception—usually because they give the interviewee more time to think of what they’ll say, or they funnel extra mental energy away from focusing on your interviewee’s response.

There are many examples of mistakes to avoid when asking questions, which primarily fall into four categories: repeating questions that prompt repetitive answers, negative questions, multipart questions, and ambiguous questions. Let’s examine each category.

Mistake #1: Repeating Questions That Prompt Repetitive Answers

Avoid repeating the same question in different ways or asking follow-up questions that glean no additional information. For example, if you ask, “Did you steal the watch?” and the interviewee answers, “No,” a follow-up question like, “Are you sure?” would lead to useless repetition.

Recall that the more someone repeats a lie, the less mental effort they must spend to repeat it and stick to the story—by asking the same questions and getting the same responses, you’re helping your interviewee solidify their story.

(Shortform note: Interrogation experts suggest another risk of repeating your questions: You can confuse an honest interviewee. Repeating a question that the interviewee already answered may send the unintended signal that his previous answer was wrong in some way. If he initially gave what he believed to be an honest answer, your signaled doubt can lead him to feel unsure of his own memory. He may then try to “correct” his response to align with the facts he thinks you’re revealing to him.)

Mistake #2: Asking Negative Questions

Negative questions require a “no” as confirmation. Negative questions usually give the interviewee more time and mental bandwidth to strategize, as they take you more time to ask than positive questions, and they only require simple answers. For example, the negative question, “You didn’t steal the watch, did you?” takes more time to ask than “Who stole the watch?”

Mistake #3: Asking Multipart Questions

Multipart questions ask multiple questions at once, attempting to get multiple pieces of information in a single response—for example, “Were you at the store yesterday, and did you see anyone suspicious?” Asking a multipart question is ineffective: Since there are so many questions packed together, seeing a sign of deception in your interviewee’s response won’t reveal helpful information—since you won’t know which part of your question was the trigger.

Mistake #4: Asking Ambiguous Questions

Ambiguous questions can be interpreted multiple ways and are easily misunderstood. For example, a question like, “Did you see what happened on Friday?” can be misleading if multiple notable events happened that day. The interviewee’s answer may refer to a different event than the one you’re referring to—thereby conflicting with your understanding of the truth. 

If you can’t be sure your interviewee understood your question, you can’t be sure whether issues in their response are due to confusion or to deception. You’ll have to take additional time to clarify the interviewee’s intent, wasting time and mental energy.

(Shortform note: Multipart, ambiguous, and negative questions share a factor beyond those the authors focus on: They all hurt your ability to communicate clearly with the interviewee. If you want to learn specific information about your interviewee, he must fully understand each question to be sure the response is relevant to your goal. However, this clarity isn’t always vital: If you simply want to learn something like whether a job applicant is trustworthy enough that she won’t lie during an interview, but you see signs of deception, then her reasons for lying don’t matter.)

CIA Interrogation Techniques: Questions to Ask and Avoid

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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