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Personality-guided interview and interrogation

Practical psychology for law enforcement investigators
By Laurence Miller, PhD

: In my training as a law enforcement investigator, I’ve taken courses and seminars, read books and articles on interview and interrogation techniques, and I apply many of these strategies to my daily work in criminal investigation. But I’ve also found that many of these techniques seem to assume they’ll apply equally to all kinds of criminal suspects. Yet, in my work, I know that people are different. Can psychology offer any tips to refining the process of interview and interrogation for the varied types of personalities and characters we encounter?

A: One of the saddest tragedies of the current debate over coercive military interrogation techniques is that, in many cases, they would be unnecessary if military investigators would only take some lessons from their law enforcement colleagues. Over the last few decades, law enforcement has actually taken the lead in perfecting the art and science of behavioral profiling, interview, and interrogation to gather critical information in criminal investigations, undercover operations, organized crime and drug traffic interdiction, serial murder investigations, and counterterrorism.

The ability of civilian police investigators to gain usable information from suspects is all the more remarkable considering that due process of law prevents you from using excessively coercive or deceptive tactics. Indeed, the effectiveness of interviews and interrogations are largely a product of how well an investigator can “read” an individual and then modify his or her style and methods to best capitalize on the subject’s personality traits and characteristics. Thus, law enforcement interrogators routinely have to utilize psychology in a very direct and practical way. This column will present a refinement of interview and interrogation techniques, based on a fundamental understanding of the psychology of personality.

Criminal organizations and criminal types

Criminal organizations can be divided into two main categories. Ideologically driven organizations, which include most domestic and international terrorist groups, are motivated by some higher religious or political cause, such as white supremacy, Islamic jihad, radical environmentalism, or world socialism. In contrast, primarily mercenary driven organizations are involved in criminal activity purely for monetary gain, such as Mafia-type organizations, drug cartels, outlaw bikers, and urban street gangs. Many criminal or terrorist enterprises contain elements of both ideologically driven and mercenary driven criminal organizations as exemplified by tax scams and bank robberies committed by North American white power groups, the political connections of many Latin American drug cartels, and religiously devoted weapons or narcotics smugglers in the Middle East.

Because human nature and social psychology are universal, most organized groups, whether criminal or legal, contain a basic, standard set of members. One or more leaders direct the operations of the group and may provide a religious, political, economic, charismatic, or other focus of allegiance for group members to rally around. A cadre of workers carry out the everyday maintenance and support functions of the organization, while a select group of soldiers perform the necessary intimidation, coercion, enforcement, and, if necessary, violent retributive or terrorist acts. Worker and soldier roles may be strictly demarcated or they may overlap, with organization members cross-trained for various roles. Finally, many common criminals work solo and they, too, come in a variety of personality types.

Basic interview and interrogation strategies

The current standard protocol of interview and interrogation in most civilian law enforcement agencies relies on a progressively narrowing or “funnel-shaped” model of information gathering. Following an initial stage of rapport-building, which is maintained throughout the interview, subjects are asked to describe events in their own words, without direction or interruption by the interviewer. Next, the interviewer poses general questions to fill in any missing data or resolve any glaring discrepancies in the narrative. More focused and detail-oriented queries are then used to help tie up any loose ends in the narrative and obtain a clear overall picture of the subject’s knowledge. Finally, rapport is reestablished at the close of the interview to smooth the way for further interview and interrogation if necessary. Intimidation or deception are used sparingly and as a last resort.

Personality-based interview and interrogation

While this standard model is generally effective with most of the everyday suspects questioned by civilian law enforcement and military intelligence teams, it may require modification and refinement to be useful with the personality types who comprise most extremist organizations and hard-core criminal gangs. Accordingly, based on an analysis of the available literature and my own experience in clinical and forensic psychological interviewing, I have developed a personality-guided model of criminal interview and interrogation that seeks to adapt the style and content of questioning to the personality dynamics of the subject.

For maximum communication among law enforcement and mental health professionals in different service branches, the model is based on the standard diagnostic categories of personality utilized by mental health clinicians in the U.S. and elsewhere. Note that the investigator need not be a mental health diagnostician to utilize these guidelines. While consultation with a psychologist might be useful in especially complex or high-profile cases, more commonly, the experienced investigator is already intuitively familiar with various personality types through his or her daily work with all kinds of people. The present model puts this knowledge in a professional framework and offers some recommendations for refining the technique of information gathering.

Narcissistic personality is a pattern of grandiosity, sense of entitlement, arrogance, and need for admiration. These are the classic criminal or extremist cult leaders, convinced of their own authority and infallibility, and able to ensnare impressionable devotees with their unshakable certitude and zeal for the cause. These are the dons and dictators who give the orders and expect them to be followed.

You may extract useful information from a narcissistic leader if you can appeal to his self-inflated egotism by treating the suspect with a certain degree of deference and respect – letting him know he’s the “big fish” authorities have been after. One thing that narcissistic personalities love to do is talk about themselves, so interviewers should sit back, act impressed, and allow the narcissistic suspect to “blow his own horn” uninterruptedly during the initial open-ended phase of the interview.

Narcissistic lieutenants and underbosses may cooperate with authorities if they can be persuaded that their own well-deserved rise to power in the group has been unfairly thwarted by less worthy members. However, combined narcissistic and paranoid (see below) group members or leaders may well view their apprehension as proof of their martyrdom, and this will only stiffen their resistance.

Paranoid personality is a pattern of pervasive distrust and suspiciousness, so that others’ actions and motives are invariably interpreted as deceptive, persecutory, or malevolent. These individuals comprise the other main category of criminal cult leaders. Their group philosophy is more likely to have a racial, political, or religious exclusionary focus as well as a darkly conspiratorial tinge, in contrast to the narcissist’s universalist philosophy which is often broad enough to encompass the whole world.

Paranoid criminal members or leaders are not likely to alter their fixed and often delusional beliefs, making them largely impervious to logic or intimidation. During questioning, they will typically either give you the silent treatment or pelt you with rambling philosophical diatribes. With unresponsive suspects, you can do most of the talking, purposely spinning a theory of the case you know is wrong and that seems to deflate the importance of the suspect’s self-perceived mission. In such cases, the paranoid suspect may then feel he has “no choice” but to pipe up and correct this gross distortion of his idiosyncratic reality. When he does speak, the best you may be able to do is piece together some coherent threads of fact that can later be independently corroborated.

Antisocial personality is a pattern of consistent disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others. It is typically associated with impulsivity, criminal behavior, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and a complete lack of empathy and conscience leading to an exploitive, parasitic, and/or predatory lifestyle. These individuals may join criminal or extremist organizations for the sheer thrill of power, and are often the assassins, soldiers, or “muscle” of the group. They can also be quite shrewd in a cunning-conning type of way, and the more intelligent among them may accumulate considerable wealth and power, or rise to positions of great authority within the organization.

Unlike the narcissist or paranoid type, however, for the antisocial criminal or terrorist there is no true loyalty, identification, or commitment. For them, it’s all a game and when cornered, they will bolt for cover and betray their compatriots to save their own skins. You might try to exploit this self-serving character by offering a deal in exchange for intelligence. However, antisocial suspects will frequently try to manipulate authorities by planting misleading information or trying to use law enforcement to strike back at their own enemies – remember the adage about trying to outbullshit a bullshitter. These characters also generally tend to be pathological liars who seem to get off on fooling people just because they can. Information obtained should therefore be independently validated as thoroughly as possible.

Borderline personality is a pattern of erratic and intense relationships, alternating between over-idealization and devaluation of others, self-damaging impulsiveness, emotional instability and mood swings, a chronic feeling of emptiness, persistent identity disturbance, and impaired interpersonal relationships. Initially, borderlines may form ferociously powerful allegiances to group leaders and ideologies and their short-term periods of intense idealistic devotion may make them useful – and expendable – functionaries for dangerous criminal operations and terrorist missions.

Their changeable affiliations may work to your advantage should the borderline member become disillusioned with the group’s ideals, or feel slighted by the leader. Then, their fierce devotion may turn to rabid resentment, allowing you to step in and convince the borderline that his or her cooperation will “right the wrong” that’s been done to them. If you can form a strong bond of rapport with the subject, he or she may reveal intimate details of the group’s plans and activities. The only caution here is that the borderline subject may later turn on you with equal intensity if he or she feels misused or rejected by you.

Avoidant personality is a pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, hypersensitivity to criticism, and shunning of confrontation. Although it is unlikely that many individuals with this personality pattern would choose a vocation like crime or terrorism, some members may have initially been attracted to the social justice philosophy and comforting ideological certainty offered by many extremist political and religious organizations. In such groups, avoidant members are unlikely to be on the front lines, but may provide valuable assistance in support and supply roles that do not actually involve violent confrontation.

Earning the cooperation of avoidant subjects will usually occur in proportion to the amount of security and safety that you can provide – i.e. this is no place for the “bad cop” routine. With a collaborative and supportive interview style, many disillusioned avoidant subjects will actually be relieved to be out from under the thumb of the criminal or extremist group and will be happy to provide information in exchange for safety. While it may appear that the avoidant suspect is uncooperatively holding back information, it may well be their innate reticence that makes it difficult for them to articulate a coherent narrative. In such cases, try to employ a simple, direct, structured, and nonconfrontational style of interaction, deemphasizing the open-ended portion of the interview and focusing on specific questions that allow the avoidant suspect to reveal his or her information in a piecemeal fashion.

Dependent personality is a pattern of obedient and clinging behavior stemming from an excessive need for care and nurturance. Dependent personalities look to others to provide guidance and direction, and they may be dedicated followers of a charismatic criminal cult, as long as independent decision-making is kept to a minimum. Criminal or extremist group leaders may easily exploit dependent group members’ hunger for approval and validation by assigning them difficult and sometimes dangerous tasks and, while their daring is not likely to be as great as with borderline and antisocial personalities, the dependent member’s loyalty and perseverance is likely to be more dogged and persistent.

Upon your initial questioning, dependent personalities may stubbornly retain their loyalty because of the sense of meaning, purpose, and validation the group has given them. Interrogators are often taught the strategy of trying to present evidence or otherwise persuade a suspect that he or she has never been regarded as a respected member of the organization and has been duped and exploited by the group leaders. While this tactic may loosen the bonds of loyalty for some suspects, it may severely threaten the dependent personality’s fragile self-image, causing his or her allegiance to the criminal group and resistance to authorities to become even more entrenched.

A more effective investigative strategy is to assume a supportive, collaborative approach to interview and interrogation, similar to that with avoidant personalities, but in this case, allowing the dependant personality to gradually see him- or herself not as a suspect in a hostile environment, but as a valued part of an important new “team” or “family”– the law enforcement agency and the accepting community you represent.

Histrionic personality is a pattern of excessive emotionality, attention-seeking, need for excitement, flamboyant theatricality in speech and behavior, and an impressionistic and impulsive cognitive style. These are the “showboats” of any organization who enjoy being at the center of attention but may not be as willing as other members to get their hands dirty with menial or dangerous work. Criminal and extremist groups may solicit these individuals as front-men and -women in the legitimate worlds of entertainment, the media, or politics, or to infiltrate mainstream organizations.

The risk is that histrionic members’ hunger for recognition may eclipse their loyalty to the group, in which case they may draw too much attention to the group’s activities and thus become an expendable liability. This, of course, may prove an investigatory asset if you can induce the suspect to barter valuable intelligence for the promise of a positive spotlight (“I helped the FBI crack the terrorist/Mafia/drug cartel plot! Film at 11:00”), combined with credible security against retaliation from the criminal group. Once again, information thus obtained should be independently corroborated, given the histrionic personality’s tendency for embellishment and self-aggrandizement.

Schizoid personality is a pattern of aloof detachment, withdrawal from others, and a restricted range of emotional expression. Schizotypal personality additionally includes more serious delusional thinking and more bizarre behavior. While such individuals are not typically joiners, the unstable identity structure of many schizoid and schizotypal personalities may lead them on philosophical and spiritual quests that end up at the door of social and religious movements with criminal or extremist ties. They will be the oddballs of the group who keep to themselves but may show fierce commitment if the movement’s philosophy appeals to their idiosyncratic world view. However, they may have a tendency to decompensate and become psychotic under prolonged stress, and are then likely to become an expendable liability to the group.

If the goals and beliefs of the criminal or extremist organization fit in with the schizoid or schizotypal subject’s idiosyncratic worldview, they may be stubbornly resistant to betraying the group. Even where these individuals choose to cooperate, the sometimes bizarre and delusional nature of the information they provide may compromise its validity and usefulness. Encouraging an open-ended narrative will likely yield an incoherently rambling stream-of-consciousness rendition or a rigidly obsessive reiteration of the group’s official party-line phrases. Instead, much as with the avoidant personality, try to focus the schizoid suspect’s attention on simple, precise questions designed to yield specific, concrete bits of information that can then be fitted together to create a coherent body of useful information and intelligence.


Inasmuch as effective law enforcement is all about understanding and dealing with human nature, many local police and federal officers are already among the best “practical psychologists” out there today. Integrating your expertise with the systematic knowledge base of the mental health profession and behavioral sciences field can only increase the overall fairness and effectiveness of all phases of the criminal justice process.

To learn more about this and other topics:

Miller, L. (2004). Personality-based interviews and interrogations. International Association of Chiefs of Police Training Key #565.
[Reprints available from the author].

Miller, L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
[Learn more about this book at www.ccthomas.com].

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.

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