A Layman’s take on Criminal Psychology: from facts to fiction: from Reid to Conan Doyle

The incident dates back to those days when I used to devour detective novels hidden under the History of Ancient India textbook. Out of the thousand such books read I remember a particular psychological experiment which finally leads to the conviction of the criminal.

Out of a list of possible suspects each subject was called for interview by the amateur
detective. The experiment went thus, a list of random seemingly irrelevant words (I think the list contained nouns and adjectives) was made by the detective. And the suspect was asked to respond (without thinking) to the words from the list with related words that came into his mind immediately after pronunciation of a word from the list by the detective.

The word from the list: Cupboard/Closet
Randomly Uttered words by Murderer: dark, breathe, wood, time

Another 150 pages unearthed that the murderer was hiding in the cupboard before he stroke and thus those words of or pertaining to darkness and suffocation were imprinted in his subconscious during the time which he spent in the closet waiting for the kill.

Coming back to the real world, the Reid technique of detecting criminals which is widely
popular in North America depends on the nine steps of interrogation:

(From Wikipedia)
* Step 1 – Tell the suspect that there is overwhelming evidence, even witnesses, of their guilt. This may be a lie to force the suspect towards confession.

* Step 2 – Try to shift the blame away from the suspect to some other person or set of
circumstances that prompted the suspect to commit the crime. That is, develop themes containing reasons that will justify or excuse the crime. Themes may be developed or changed to find one to which the accused is most responsive.

* Step 3 – Never allow the suspect to deny guilt. Reid training video: “If you’ve let him talk and say the words ‘I didn’t do it’, and the more often a person says ‘I didn’t do it’, the more difficult it is to get a confession.” Stopping them talking also stops them asking for a lawyer.

* Step 4 – At this point, the accused will often give a reason why he or she did not or
could not commit the crime. Try to use this to move towards the confession.

* Step 5 – Reinforce sincerity to ensure that the suspect is receptive.

* Step 6 – The suspect will become quieter and listen. Move the theme discussion towards offering alternatives. If the suspect cries at this point, infer guilt.

* Step 7 – Pose the “alternative question”, giving two choices for what happened; one
more socially acceptable than the other. The suspect is expected to choose the easier option but whichever alternative the suspect chooses, guilt is admitted.

* Step 8 – Lead the suspect to repeat the admission of guilt in front of witnesses.

* Step 9 – Document the suspect’s admission and have them sign as a confession.

But then this process is widely debated and banned in certain countries as it has been found that in certain cases young suspects under tremendous psychological pressure succumbed and confessed of the crime which they never committed.

Recent studies DePaulo et al..suggests otherwise and proves that the results obtained by such psychological techniques might not be accurate and may lead to false conviction.

I am not aware whether studies have been conducted on the psychology of the detectives as well to see how the conclusion of the criminal analysis varies from detective to detective. Might be I can draw an analogy from Object oriented programming world wherein say the detective and the suspect are two objects and the attributes which may lead to the successful analysis and discovery of the crime neither belongs to (properties of) the suspect nor the detective but lies in the relationship between the objects (object to object link).

Conclusion: Might be there exists a hitherto unknown superior way to detect lies (ahem……Did I hear someone say we have lie detectors in place?!)May be it is better not to subject innocent suspects to such psychological sledgehammer and to rely on physics and chemistry in crime detection. Are you listening Mr. Holmes?

DePaulo, B.M., Lindsay, J.J., Malone, B.E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K. & Cooper, H. (2003).Cues to Deception. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 74–118.
Just how good are police officers at detecting liars? By Emma Barrett, of Psychology and Crime News and the Deception Blog.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reid_technique on Reid Technique
For more exciting reads refer to
Research Digest Blog (British Psychological Society)

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