The use of rationalization during an interrogation

Provided by John E. Reid & Associates

Two conditions must be satisfied before a person decides to commit a crime.

The first is that the individual must believe that he or she will not be punished for the crime. For example, no sane person would set their neighbor’s house on fire or download pornography on a company computer if they knew that they would suffer consequences for their actions. However, ninety percent of society would never sell illegal drugs, steal a car or sexually molest a child even if they were guaranteed to get away with the crime. Therefore, a second condition must also be met which is that the person must be able to justify the criminal behavior in some manner.

The difference between people who commit crimes or violate company policies and those who do not is that the former believe that their dishonest behavior is justified. This is done by cognitively distorting reality. By doing so, the individual does not experience significant guilt or anxiety as a result of their criminal behavior. Anna Freud coined the phrase “defense mechanism” to describe this mental process. In our experience, there are several predominant defense mechanisms guilty suspects employ to justify their criminal behavior.

Many criminals utilize projection to place blame for their own actions onto someone or something else, e.g., the victim, an accomplice, low salary, unfair treatment, intoxication. A criminal may also reduce their feeling of guilt through minimization by convincing themselves that what they did could have been much worse, e.g., “I only took $50,000 — if I were dishonest I could have easily embezzled $100,000.” 

Most criminals form a false belief that many others share their dishonest attitudes (identification) and may also engage in denial, where they convince themselves that there is no injury to the victim, e.g., “The company can afford the loss”; “The child was not physically injured.” Finally, there are individuals who justify their criminal behavior by psychologically distorting the true intention behind their crime. e.g., “I didn’t mean to steal the money, I just wanted to borrow it.” This defense mechanism is called rationalization.

Interrogation techniques rely on the fact that guilty suspects utilize defense mechanisms to justify their crimes. In an effort to create an environment in which a guilty suspect feels more comfortable telling the truth, the interrogator will reinforce the defense mechanisms that already exist in the suspect’s mind. This is done by presenting a persuasive monologue called an interrogation theme.

Consider that an employee is being interrogated on the issue of stealing a $2,000 deposit from the manager’s office. During his interrogation the investigator may develop a theme that blames the employee’s decision to take the deposit on the company’s failure to pay him an adequate salary or for the manager’s negligence for not securing the deposit (projection). The employee may experience further moral relief when the investigator explains that if the employee was truly dishonest he would have stolen money the first week he was hired or stolen other deposits from the company (minimization).

For a guilty suspect to relate to an interrogation theme, the justifications offered by the investigator must be similar to how the suspect himself justified the crime. Furthermore, the theme should not provide the suspect with a legal defense for his criminal behavior. For both of these reasons, the investigator must be cautious in using themes which reinforce the defense mechanism of rationalization.

An example of an inappropriate rationalization theme in the previous theft case would be for the investigator to describe a scenario where the employee took the $2,000 believing that it was a cash advance for an upcoming business trip. Considering the money was clearly in a deposit bag sitting on top of the manager’s desk and that the employee has never received a cash advance of more than $100, it is implausible that he would have justified his theft by distorting reality in this manner. Furthermore, this particular rationalization theme is improper because it offers the employee a legal defense since it removes the necessary element of wrongful intent, i.e., taking money that the employee knew belonged to the company.

However, there are many occasions where guilty suspects do use rationalization to justify their criminal behavior and where the investigator can appropriately use a theme that incorporates rationalization. The following guidelines are offered to help identify whether a particular suspect may have used the defense mechanism of rationalization to justify his crime:

1.     Suspects who are essentially caught in the act of committing the crime. A male nurse at a convalescent center was caught on video tape having sexual contact with an 18-year-old comatose female patient. After being shown the tape he explained that he engaged in the activity merely in an effort to stimulate the patient out of her coma.

2.     Suspects who commit spontaneous or opportunistic crimes. A suspect who takes days or weeks to carefully plan out exactly how to commit a crime is unlikely to have justified his dishonest behavior through rationalization. However, a suspect who commits a crime on the spur of the moment may well have rationalized it. Consider a driver of a vehicle who strikes a pedestrian and leaves the scene because he was drinking and did not want to be charged with DUI. In his mind, he may well convince himself that he left the scene in an effort to get help.

3.     Suspects who are facing significant personal consequences of embarrassment, loss of pride or esteem. To restore the suspect’s self-worth this type of offender is likely to have rationalized his criminal behavior. A classic example is the child molester who simply does not recognize that he engages in sexual contact with children to elevate his own self-worth. Very often, pedophiles perceive their sexual contact with children as showing love and affection.

4.     Suspects who offer judgmental denials. Consider the suspect who is asked, “How do you feel about being interviewed concerning this allegation against you?” and responds, “I feel fine because I know I didn’t do anything wrong.” 

This suspect is not denying committing the crime. Rather he is denying wrongful intent behind his actions. A similar judgmental denial is a statement where the suspect claims he is “innocent” of committing the crime. For example, a suspect may explain that he is “innocent of robbing the victim.” Under this circumstance the investigator should consider the possibility that the suspect believed the victim owed him the money that was stolen during the robbery.

The recommendation that an interrogation theme should not present the suspect with a legal defense is offered to guard against claims that the theme somehow offered the suspect an implied promise of leniency. This concern is not based on court rulings or empirical findings in the field. Rather, it is in response to the theoretical argument that if a theme offers a legal defense for the suspect’s crime, it may then be perceived as removing any consequences if the suspect chooses to confess to the crime. The following list is offered to help investigators understand the sometimes subtle distinction between themes that may offer a legal defense and those that do not.

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