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pomrania  asked:

Would you be able to talk about alternatives to torture, for gathering information? Like, you've made it very clear that torture does NOT work for that, so what are some things writers could have their characters do instead, to provide an example for people making real-world decisions, that wouldn't involve human-rights violations? (If this isn't your field of knowledge, would you know of things to look up, as a starting point?)

I’m happy to try but the proviso is that almost everything I’ve come across to do with how interrogations and investigations should actually be conducted has come up while researching torture. Which skews the information somewhat.

The main thing that needs stressing is something almost all sources agree on INTERROGATIONS ARE A BAD WAY OF COLLECTING INFORMATION.

A good investigation would rely primarily on evidence gathering and informants. For evidence gathering I’d suggest looking up books and blogs on forensics and perhaps ScriptHacker for computer-based evidence.

Informants are a little trickier. In a best-case members of the public actively want to help with information gathering. A good real life example is the London Bombings in July 2005. Members of the public were essential in the capture of the terrorists responsible.

These people included the parents and neighbours of the bombers. These people recognised the bombers from CCTV footage of the attacks, contacted the police and gave them a lot of essential information. This actually stopped another bomb from going off and saved lives.

Support and help from the public is essential to the success of any investigation. And having been in the UK at the time of those attacks I can also say that this sort of support is often also a sort of public/civic pride. Part of how torture hampers investigations is by making this level of public trust and cooperation impossible.

In situations where the public doesn’t necessarily support the investigation, such as in repressive regimes, people are often paid for information. The system doesn’t work as well but it still functions reasonably. It’s hugely expensive and not always as reliable.

In settings with informants it is highly likely the public is aware of informants. There’s an atmosphere of fear and the mistaken tendency to believe that people picked up by the police/government must have had some sort of information. The climate of fear may hamper investigations, making ordinary people hesitate to come forward for fear they might be arrested or implicated.

It’s also worth pointing out that even in repressive regimes there are cases that will get widespread public support. It is perfectly reasonable for the determined gumshoe in your dystopia setting to get help and support from the public when he’s trying to solve a child’s murder even if the same people ignored him last week when he was looking for political dissidents.

Which brings us to the stuff I can actually talk a little about the least reliable method: interrogations.

I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on interrogation and I’ve never conducted an interrogation. Most of what I’m putting down here is based on experiments on human memory rather than interrogation per say. These techniques are focused on trying to improve memory more then ‘catch’ lies, they spot inconsistencies they don’t show whether the inconsistencies are accidental or on purpose.

Get them to tell their story backwards.

If the story stays consistent when it’s told backwards as well as forwards then you can be reasonably sure that it is genuinely what that person remembers. That isn’t quite the same as it being true. Forcing someone to focus on their story in this way sometimes help people to recall additional details. It also makes spotting inconsistencies easier. It is much harder to keep a lie consistent when telling the story backwards, so lies are easier to spot. But inconsistencies may also be down to trauma or normal flaws in human memory.

Separate the people involved

This doesn’t just prevent suspects from coming up with a ‘cover story’, it also prevents witnesses from accidentally affecting each other’s memories. In group settings people often have agree with the consensus of the group. This can powerful enough to trigger alterations in people’s memories.

Build a repartee

Interrogators/interviewers should try and build up a connection with the people they’re interviewing. This takes time and patience. Speaking the interviewee’s native language is usually essential as is treating them with respect.

Avoid leading questions or pressure tactics

These lead to false confessions.

And that’s…..a pretty complete summary so far as I know.

The truth is that the backbone of investigations and information gathering is public support. Dossiers are built on people voluntarily supplying information about their neighbours, friends and family as well as strangers.

A close second is forensics and physical evidence, which given how much information about any one person is now digital, often includes a large amount of online and computer-based data.

Interrogations suck. The human memory is unreliable and becomes more unreliable under stress. Which affects innocent people who are nervous because they’ve just been arrested as much as it affects guilty people who are trying not to get caught.

If you want to write real-world information gathering my advice is avoid interrogations as far as possible. They just aren’t that useful.


S. O’Mara in ‘Neuroscience and Interrogation: Why Torture Doesn’t Work’ covers a lot of the points on memory.

Rejali in ‘Torture and Democracy’ covers how investigations are actually conducted in the absence of torture with a focus on public cooperation and informants.

The New Scientist has published several articles relevant to human memory over the years and one specifically on interrogation/interviewing.

Edit: You might want to also check out this blog that takes questions on forensics and investigations.