The virtue of similarity: Overcoming resistance in intelligence interviews through cooperative mindset

The virtue of similarity: Overcoming resistance in intelligence interviews through cooperative mindset

Creating a relationship with a subject that is based on similarities with the interviewer, rather than on dissimilarities with the target, can overcome barriers to cooperation that stem from affiliation concerns. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2019, Vol. 25, No. 2, 107–115

Enhancing cooperation and disclosure by manipulating affiliation and developing rapport in investigative interviews


Laure Brimbal, Iowa State University
Rachel E. Dianiska, Iowa State University
Jessica K. Swanner, Iowa State University
Christian A. Meissner, Iowa State University


We sought to identify motivations to resist cooperation in intelligence interviews and develop techniques to overcome this resistance. One source of resistance can arise because of concerns for affiliations (e.g., “I do not want to inform on my friends/family/fellow countryman”). We investigated two avenues of rapport building—approach and avoidance—designed to overcome this concern. In a modified cheating paradigm, our participants (N = 116) became affiliated with a confederate who they then witnessed cheating. Participants were interviewed about the event in a 2 (approach: present vs. absent) X 2 (avoid: present vs. absent) design. The interviewer used either an approach technique that aligned them with the interviewer (portrayed as a morally good person) or an avoid technique that moved them away from the culprit (portrayed as nefarious), neither, or both. The approach technique increased rapport between the interviewer and participant. However, the avoid technique decreased the amount information elicited. When submitted to a mediation model, the approach technique had a positive indirect effect on information yield via perceived rapport and cooperation, while this was not the case for the avoid technique. An exploratory moderator analysis revealed that sympathy for the confederate moderated the effect of the avoid technique on information disclosed, where the more sympathy a participant felt for the confederate, the less information he or she provided. Implications for interviewing are discussed.


investigative interviewing, rapport, cooperation, affiliation, resistance

Summary of the Research

“There is growing consensus among practitioners and researchers that a rapport-based approach to interviewing is more reliable and productive than a confrontational, accusatorial approach. […] The current study adds to [the] literature by offering the first assessment of how reshaping a resistant source’s affiliations might influence perceived rapport between the source and an interviewer, as well as the extent to which such perceived rapport is likely to increase both the likelihood of cooperation and the provision of actionable information.” (p. 107)

“Interviewers have […] defined rapport as a working relationship in which there is willful communication by the subject, trust between the interviewer and source, and mutual respect. When interviewers are asked about their current practices, they report using rapport and relationship-building tactics, and they perceive these methods as effective in eliciting cooperation and investigative information. […] From the subject’s perspective, rapport-based techniques are also judged as best practice. […] Finally, when observing actual interrogations, the use of rapport and relationship-building techniques has been associated with higher levels of cooperation, information disclosure, and admissions, whereas the use of conversational rapport elements drawn from motivational interviewing (e.g., showing empathy, allowing autonomy, providing a nonjudgmental context) has been associated with both the elicitation of critical information and the reduction of counterinterrogation strategies (e.g., suspect remaining silent, claiming lack of memory).” (p. 108)

“While there is considerable consensus that rapport is important for interviews and interrogations, only a handful of studies have, to date, experimentally manipulated rapport-based tactics in interviews involving reluctant interview subjects (modeling the interrogation context). […] In the [previous] studies, the primary outcome of interest was whether or not a participant confessed; however, given the current impetus toward information-gathering approaches, the effect of rapport on information yield has become of principal interest. […] In the current study, we build on manipulations of rapport that seek to evoke positive emotional responses and/or pleasant feelings toward the interviewer. We sought to increase rapport via the relationship between interviewer and subject and focused our efforts on modifying a subject’s sense of affiliation within the interview.” (p. 108)

“While people generally feel connected to others who are a part of the same social groups as they are (e.g., gender, nationality, sports team), research suggests that affiliation can be artificially created and exert a similar influence over behavior. […] In the interviewing literature, rapport tactics are often focused on relationship building with the subject. This is important because people are more likely to protect sensitive information that is obtained from those they are affiliated with and to disclose sensitive information to other individuals by whom they feel accepted. […] If the interviewer is able to successfully influence an individual’s perceptions of his or her affiliations (by strengthening an affiliation between the interviewer and the individual or by distancing the individual’s affiliation with others involved), this could increase rapport between the interviewer and the individual and affect the individual’s resistance to disclosing critical information.” (pp. 108–109)

“The current study focuses on the motivational factor and explores tactics by which a reluctant subject might be led to cooperate and disclose important information. Specifically, we posited that perceived rapport with the interrogator could be influenced by increasing the interviewer’s affiliation with the subject by highlighting similarities between the two and/or by decreasing the subject’s affiliation with a confederate (with whom he or she had engaged in an activity and witnessed cheating) by highlighting dissimilarities between the two. We predicted that these tactics would influence subjects’ perceptions of rapport with the interviewer and that perceived rapport would affect subjects’ decision to cooperate with the interviewer, leading to increased information disclosure.” (p. 109)

Participants included 116 undergraduate students who volunteered to participate in a study described as a test of general knowledge. The participants competed the study with a confederate.

“Before they began going through the items, to bolster the minimal group manipulation by inciting sympathy for the confederate, she introduced herself and asked the participant several questions (e.g., “What class are you doing this study for?”). She then described the difficult semester she had had (i.e., heavy work schedule, declining grades, and family problems). After this initial disclosure, the confederate apologized for burdening the participant with her troubles, and they then began the getting-to-know-you session.” (p. 110)

“Once they completed all getting-to-know-you questions, the participant and confederate collaborated on a general knowledge task (a series of 30 questions). […] Once the experimenter left the room, the confederate engaged in three instances of cheating. […] Once the general knowledge task was complete, the experimenter informed the pair that their answers would be reviewed and scored, and provided them with another filler questionnaire. Following a 2-min delay, the experimenter rushed into the room stating that there was a problem with the study and that he or she needed the confederate to come with him or her. The experimenter told the participant to wait because another experimenter would talk to him or her about the problem.” (p. 110)

“The interviewer then entered the room and informed the participant that his or her responses were almost all correct, despite the fact that most people only get approximately 60% of the questions right. The participant was told that this was a major problem and that the professor in charge might consider this a case of academic dishonesty.” (p. 110)

“In the control condition, the interviewer began questioning the participant directly by asking whether the participant had cheated, followed by an open-ended request for information […] In all other conditions, to seamlessly set up the specific manipulation(s), the interviewer attempted to build rapport with the participant by engaging in small talk (e.g., asking about major, interests, semester progress) immediately after introducing themselves.” (p. 110)

“In the approach condition, the interviewer highlighted similarities between themselves and the participant, stating that like the interviewer, the participant seemed like an honest and sincere person who prided themselves on being accountable for his or her actions. The interviewer then indicated that he or she viewed the participant as similar to themselves. […] In the avoid condition, the interviewer stated that the participant seemed like an honest and sincere person who prided themselves on being accountable for his or her actions as well. However, instead of likening themselves to the participant, the interviewer highlighted that these characteristics were in stark contrast with someone who would violate policy […] The approach + avoid condition combined both the approach and avoid manipulations; thus, the mention of the participant being an honest and sincere person was first likened to the interviewer’s actions and then repeated and contrasted with the confederate’s previous behavior.” (p. 110)

“Contrary to our predictions, only the approach technique—which involved attempts at increasing affiliation between the interviewer and the source—led to increased feelings of rapport for the interviewer. Further, only the approach technique indirectly facilitated cooperation via rapport, which in turn facilitated the elicitation of key admissions. In contrast, the avoid technique—which involved attempts at decreasing affiliation between the source and the target—led to fewer admissions of critical information.” (p. 112)

“Given that the avoid technique did not independently increase rapport between the participant and the interviewer, this limits the potential benefits of trying to break down the relationship between a subject and a target. Post hoc analyses suggested that the effectiveness of the avoid technique may have been influenced by participants’ perceptions of the confederate, such that those who felt more sympathy for the confederate were less likely to disclose information when the technique was used, providing insight into why the avoid technique did not function as predicted. These findings demonstrate the potential utility of creating a bond between the interviewer and source, while illustrating the danger of trying to undermine the relationship they have with a target.” (p. 112)

“Importantly, this was the first experimental study to explicitly test the link between rapport, cooperation, and information yield. The experimental nature of this study allowed us to separate participants’ perceptions of the interviewer, their decision to cooperate, and the objective amount of verifiable details they provided.” (p. 112)

Translating Research into Practice

“Although further research is necessary to provide a more detailed account of the process, the current findings suggest that interviewers’ time may be best served by seeking to increase affiliation between the subject and themselves, rather than attempting to diminish an existing affiliation between the source and the target— especially if the subject has a strong sympathetic connection with the target.” (p. 113)

“The present experiment also demonstrated the importance of successful rapport building for creating a cooperative mind-set. In the approach condition, perceptions of rapport facilitated a decision to cooperate with the interviewer and increased the amount of information provided. Hence, it is possible that rapport needs to be successfully built and linked with cooperation in order to yield information. Indeed, in the control condition, there was a significant indirect effect of rapport on information yield through cooperation.” (pp. 113–114)

“However, perceived rapport on its own was not sufficient to yield more information in our avoid condition: Interviewers were not able to build rapport with their subjects, and rapport was not tied to cooperation and did not increase information yield. Thus, it is possible that the avoid manipulation created reactance that made rapport more difficult to build and broke down the link between rapport and cooperation. This highlights the importance of fostering a cooperative mind-set through rapport in order to obtain a productive interview outcome. Finally, detailing this link is important because it clearly establishes the role of rapport within an investigative information-gathering interviewing framework. Whereas good questions increase information yield and accuracy of memory, rapport can help overcome resistance—a main concern for intelligence interviewers and law enforcement interrogators.” (p. 114)

“The present research demonstrated that rapport may be built strategically with particular barriers to cooperation in mind. Specifically, interviewers may listen for opportunities to utilize approach techniques in order to enhance rapport. If an individual mentions anything about themselves, then the interviewer may leverage that information to either increase similarity or find common ground (approach technique). Finally, these findings provide support for the idea that an interviewer should shy away from addressing a source’s connection with a target. Indeed, if an individual feels strongly connected to another target, then the interviewer should be mindful of that connection and not attempt to diminish the relationship. In conclusion, creating a relationship with a subject can be useful to overcome barriers to cooperation derived from concerns of affiliation, and importantly, interviewers should strive to develop a cooperative mind-set with their rapport-building attempts.” (p. 114)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“Several limitations were present in the current study. First, the number of participants we had to exclude from analyses limits our findings. Several technical difficulties during data collection resulted in the loss of data. Further, as is typical when using the current paradigm, additional participants were lost due to suspicion of our procedures. […] Second, although we made efforts to ensure psychological realism for our participants, the current study is still a laboratory experiment, using interview scripts, which limits its applicability in the field and the recommendations we can provide practitioners based upon our findings.” (p. 113)

“Third, we designed a situation in which we held constant that the interviewer was not initially affiliated with the participant (as we assume this is most often the case at the outset of an interview) and created a relationship between the source and the target (again assuming that this represents the most likely scenario). While more typical than not, this may not always represent a given interview situation, and therein the current findings are limited to the context created in the present study.” (p. 113)

“Finally, our measurement of rapport was based on the interviewees’ perceptions of the interviewer. This was done to increase measurement validity and focus on the psychological mechanisms that lead to interviewees’ perceptions of rapport and their decision to cooperate with the interviewer. Thus, we chose to focus on the interviewees’ perspective of the interviewer rather than either a subjective impression of the interviewee by the interviewer or a more objective coding of the behavior of the interviewee during the interview.” (p. 113)

Join the Discussion

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

Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

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