Getting to the truth
In the last Newsletter (The ‘Gas-Lighting’ Gambit – 22nd February 2021) we discussed how students can use the technique of lying to avoid facing the consequences of their behaviour. Unfortunately, teachers will have to spend a significant proportion of their time solving school-yard crimes never mind the increase demands for investigations of disputes made on school executives. Despite the protests of many parents, who insist that ‘their child would not lie to them’ it is a fact of life that kids will lie on occasion especially if they are trying to avoid trouble!
I recently came across an article in Scientific American by Roni Jacobson ‘How to Extract a Confession … Ethically’ and, I thought the process used by President Obama’s High Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) which meets the standards of the American Psychological Association might be of interest. These ‘standards’ were a result of the reports of torture in the Iraq War. You are not being asked to investigate real crimes, that’s not your job but the techniques will help you solve the inevitable disputes.
Just a note of caution – if a real felony has been committed or you suspect one may have been perpetrated you must not investigate the crime, refer on to your departmental supervisors who may engage the professionals. Any investigations you may try to make can contaminate the evidence that may later be required.
The following are the steps developed to get to the truth of the matter in an effective and still ethical way:
- Build Rapport
Think about the ‘good cop – bad cop’ scenario you see in all the movies and then eliminate the bad cop. Develop an empathetic approach to the student you are questioning. You want to build an atmosphere of cooperation as you approach the problem. Explain why you are interviewing them using neutral non-verbal cues and a calm steady voice.
This is the important step, not only to get to the truth but because you are genuinely concerned for the student. The all-important relationship between you and the pupil can survive even after you establish their ‘guilt’. Remember the child is not the behaviour, we want to find out what happened and if needed provide the consequences, this is how we teach responsibility so it is their actions that are being investigated not their worth.
- Fill in the Blank
Reduce their tension by asking some closed questions not necessarily related to the purpose of the meeting, this will get them used to answering. Later, these ‘closed’, yes/no questions should be avoided when we are investigating these yes/no answers allow them to avoid addressing more complex issues. Then lead into the interview by telling what you know about the situation in a manner that suggests you already know what happened. As you go on with your narrative the guilty student will often start to add details or correct part of your story without realizing they are doing so. These are usually as a way of defending themselves but by providing additional information they are establishing their presence at the incident.
Don’t go ‘in for the kill’ when this starts to happen – you are building a case, be patient. Research conducted in 2014 indicated that people who are interrogated using this method tended to underestimate how much they were telling the interrogator.
- Surprise Them
If a group of students are involved they know they are under suspicion and try to get their stories coordinated, they may even rehearse their answers ahead of time. In the age of mobile phones, I have seen texts between students where their stories are ‘coordinated’. Never interview all the students as a group but question them independently and keep them separated until you have finished your interviews. This way they will be unsure if their partners in crime have stuck to their story.
However, under the pressure of the interview individuals must try to keep ‘the story’ intact while they struggle to remain calm and relaxed. This is the time to ask them something unexpected, something out of the blue about the incident or suggest a different scenario. This is when they often slip-up while they try to fit these ‘new facts’ into their fabricated story. It will be impossible for all the students to fabricate the same explanation.
- Ask Them to Tell the Story Backwards
It might appear counter intuitive but students who are telling the truth will add more details as the retell their story, this is why surprises work so well. Those students who are lying will try to stick rigidly to their story being careful not to make changes. However, memories are never consistent, every time you recall an event your memories change this is how memory works. This is why you should be suspicious if everyone’s story is exactly the same.
This technique of getting them to tell their story in reverse order exploits the difficulty liars have reconstructing their story from the back to the front. Again, the HIG investigation found that liars produced twice as many details when telling their story in reverse order often contradicting their original story.
- Withhold Evidence Until the Crucial Moment
On some occasions the participants will immediately ‘spill their guts’, they will confess but these types of students will tell the truth eventually; they are not the difficult students we are talking about. These more problematic children require a more skilled approach to finding the truth.
In a follow-up study following, the HIG report it was established that when people were confronted with evidence of their wrongdoing early in the interviewing process they either clammed up or became hostile. This is why you never present all the evidence at the beginning. If you do this the process of ‘gas-lighting’ becomes the go-to behaviour and you will have a much more difficult time getting to the truth. But after a period of time, when you have established the conditions the release of evidence will often be accepted because they give up trying to sustain the lie.
There will be times when you ‘know’ what happened but you can’t prove it but at these times keep in touch with reality. It’s more important that you are seen to be caring, trying to solve the problem in a fair-minded manner. In fact, the victims will eventually understand this but more importantly the perpetrators will accept that you are fair and knowing they may have a small sense of victory you move on with your integrity intact and relationships in one piece. You live to fight another day!