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Research Suggests Influence of Priming Techniques on Disclosure During Interviews

Forensic-Training-AcademyPriming individuals using attachment security increases the likelihood of forthcomingness in interviews. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.


Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2015, Vol. 39, No. 5, 443-550



Evaluation of a Comprehensive Interactive Training System for Investigative Interviewers of Children


Evan Dawson, City University of New York
Maria Hartwig, City University of New York
Laure Brimbal, City University of New York



Research on implicit cognition has found that activating mental concepts can lead people to behave in ways that are consistent with the primed concept. In a pilot study we tested the effects of priming attachment security on the accessibility of disclosure-related concepts. Subsequently, we tested whether activating disclosure concepts by priming attachment security would influence people’s forthcomingness. Participants (N ? 102) delivered a flash drive to a confederate who exposed them to details of a mock eco terrorism conspiracy, which they were subsequently interviewed about. Before being interviewed, half of the participants were primed; the other half were not. Results showed that primed participants disclosed significantly more information than those who were not primed. Our findings highlight the need for further research on basic nonconscious processes in investigative interviews, as such influences can affect the outcome of the interview. The operation of nonconscious influences in such contexts has implications for practitioners, who may be able to utilize priming to facilitate disclosure.


disclosure, investigative interviewing, priming

Summary of the Research

The current study intends to address the “need for scientifically sound and ethically defensible methods of promoting disclosure” in light of questionable interviewing and interrogation techniques in recent years (p. 443). The authors sought to test whether forthcomingness and disclosure in an experimental interview could be increased through an implicit priming technique.

In a review of implicit cognition and priming, the authors highlight that “much of human cognition operates outside of our awareness, and that processes like cooperation and goal pursuit can be influenced nonconsciously through priming. Priming can be defined as a nonconscious process of memory characterized by an enhanced ability to recall or recognize a stimulus that one has previously been exposed to” (p. 443). Specifically, this study focuses on conceptual priming, which “occurs by elaborating on the meaning of the item and semantic processes that entail associated concepts” and “involves the activation of semantic concepts that are related to the target concept” (p. 443). Based on the notion that priming makes a concept available and therefore increases the accessibility of that concept, the current research focuses on attachment styles, which are concepts that can be made more accessible through priming.

“Andersen and Chen (2002) propose that our sense of self is linked to our relationships with significant people in our lives, and that our mental representations of others are activated when we encounter new people. These representations guide our expectations, perceptions and behaviors and lead to a nonconscious transference of associated feelings and motivations onto new people. For example, if one has just interacted with a significant person whom one cares for and trusts, a constellation of associated goals (e.g., to help or please), memories (e.g., of positive experiences), feelings (e.g., of happiness, closeness), expectations (e.g., of friendliness, warmth), and behaviors (e.g., conversations, gestures) is activated. The thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with this activated relationship can then spill over onto new people, leading one to behave toward a new person in the way one would toward the person just thought about or interacted with” (p. 444).

In order to test the effects of priming a relational style (secure attachment) on disclosure of information in a mock human intelligence interview, the researchers instructed participants to “reflect on feelings of security and trust that relate to disclosure (confiding in someone)” (p. 444). After a pilot study confirmed that primed participants filled in more disclosure-relate words than nonprimed participants in a word fill-in task, the researchers used the same priming technique in an interview study. “Participants were tasked with delivering a flash drive ostensibly containing details about an upcoming event to a (confederate) member of an environmental organization. They were asked to imagine being affiliated with the organization and told that while most of the organization’s activities involved demonstrations and protests, some members had been suspected of having committed terrorist acts. Participants then delivered the flash drive to a confederate posing (and outfitted) as an agent of the organization; the confederate was located in an office on the same floor, which was decorated with maps and aerial photos of fracking sites. The confederate informed participants about the mission of the organization and then plugged in the flash drive, which played an approximately 1-min long message from the ostensible leader of the organization to the agent they met; this message contained nearly 25 details of a bomb plot aimed at stopping the operations of a natural gas company” (p. 446).

Following this interaction, participants were informed that they would be interviewed by an investigator who knew that they had met someone involved. Each participant was informed that giving details about the interaction would be good to gain favor of the interrogator, but the more they revealed the more suspicious of their involvement the interviewer might become. Following these instructions, half of the participants were assigned a “concentrating task” which was the priming manipulation. The results showed that, not only did primed participants rate themselves as having more honest answers, they also provided more overall details (but not critical details) about the encounter than nonprimed participants.

“Consistent with research showing that when concepts are more accessible, they tend to influence behavior in a prime-consistent manner, our findings demonstrate that activating a secure attachment and related concepts about disclosing can induce forthcomingness. It is important to note that the effects we observed are comparable with those reported in previous research, which has found that secure attachment priming exerts a small-to- moderate effect on behavior. More generally, our results indicate that as in other types of social interactions, nonconscious processes are operating in investigative interviewing contexts” (p. 447).

Translating Research into Practice

The finding that “influences outside of an interviewee’s awareness can be manipulated to influence their interview behavior has two important practical implications. First, it is important for interviewers to be mindful of the concepts they may be heightening accessibility of through their questioning and behavior toward an interviewee, as it may influence decisions to disclose. Second, basic principles of non- conscious processes may be transformable into methods of influence for practitioners. We found that priming attachment security promotes disclosure, but it would also be useful to know the extent to which the activation of other concepts fosters or hinders disclosure” (p. 448).

Noting that this study is the first to explore nonconscious influences in an investigative context, the findings present opportunity for research on the use of implicit means such as priming to elicit information during investigative interviews. Although improvements should be made to examine potential mediators in the effect of priming on forthcomingness, research may be able to test ways in which interviewers can manipulate nonconscious influences to increase disclosure in the field.

Those that practice as clinicians and evaluators in the field of general and forensic mental health should be alerted to the fact that implicit cognition may be affected in a way such that it impacts a client/patient’s willingness to disclose information. The current research study suggests that encouraging a certain way of thinking about oneself prior to an interview may directly impact the extent of forthcomingness. Similarly, it would be important to keep in mind whether similar manipulations, intentional or not, might have the opposite effect and prevent or hinder forthcomingness.

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“This research is based on well-supported psychological theories of implicit cognition. Given the potent and robust nature of such theories, it is noteworthy that nonconscious influences have not been previously explored in investigative contexts. To date, research on investigative interviews and interrogations has primarily focused on the mechanisms and effectiveness of commonly employed techniques, as well as the creation and testing of noncoercive techniques to enhance the reliability of memory and to assist in credibility or veracity assessment” (p. 447). “Future research may want to attempt to replicate these effects using standardized interview protocols (although this may reduce external validity). Moreover, this was a laboratory study, where the consequences for participants were trivial. Future research should explore the extent to which priming affects behavior in high-stakes settings” (p. 448).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!


Authored By: Marissa Zappala

1Marissa Zappala is currently a second-year Master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Her main research interests include cognitive biases, forensic assessment, and evaluator training and education. Following her Master’s, Marissa plans to pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and an eventual career in psychological assessment.

1 thought on “Research Suggests Influence of Priming Techniques on Disclosure During Interviews

  1. “It is noteworthy that nonconscious influences have not been previously explored in investigative contexts.”

    “Noting that this study is the first to explore nonconscious influences in an investigative context.”

    These two assertions are example of priming themselves, the second positive assertion intending a different affect.
    However both are misleading.

    Priming has been around for over a hundred years in the investigative field and well articulate in the last 50 years. When I started teaching investigative interviewing 25 years ago I frequently drew parallels between ’embedded commands’ and metaphors in hypnosis and the language of investigative interviewing, concepts well articulated in the 1970’s. I don’t mean to throw a wet rag on this research yet there is nothing original in the investigative field about priming. (I would be quite happy to forward a copy of my training manual 1988) .Choosing what words, phrases to use is critical in establishing the responses you wish to achieve, from the most blatant name dropping and the use of ambiguous language, to such subtle subconscious mind benders as positive framing and contextual metaphors. Its not that the author’s assertion is incorrect – perhaps framing primers in the research model as it relates to investigative interviewing is novel, but I would question its value in enhancing our methodologies.

    I understand the rigours and narrow focus demanded of students in the academic culture, however it appears to be breeding intellectual elitism ignorant of intuitive models because they are unproven in the incestuous field of research. The result is legions of unimaginative thinkers appropriating stale ideas and couching them in new language, deconstructing them into tidbits of novelty.

    Having said that, kudos to the author for her painstaking work and having the moxie to publish. I’m sure it will prove to be a good primer in the field.

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