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The Importance of Positive Reinforcement

Imagine if your boss asked you to do an unpleasant task and never bothered to thank you for doing it. What if your spouse did the same thing to you over and over again? You probably wouldn’t like that very much and resentment would start to build. When we interview subjects who are reluctant to tell the truth out of fear of the consequenc

es, we are faced with a similar predicament. If they begin to relent and start to tell bits of the truth, we must acknowledge that with positive reinforcement. If we don’t, there is absolutely no incentive for them to continue being truthful.

For example, we were interviewing a subject who we believed had intentionally poisoned her 5 year old son by giving him an overdose of his hyperactive medication. She repeatedly refused having even been home during the “accidental ingestion” of the pills. This subject made her first significant admission by admitting to giving her son double the dose of his medication (two pills instead of one) on the date in question. Even though we knew this was not true and contradicted the medical evidence, it was a significant admission none the less. It demonstrated a willingness on the subject’s part to move closer toward a confession. This, of course, is exactly what we wanted!

The response we gave her went something like this: “Thank you Jane. We know that must have been very difficult for you to tell us and we appreciate your honesty.” This response affirms the subject’s behavior and encourages more behavior of the same nature. It would have been a drastic mistake to tell her what we were really thinking: “Hey Jane, do you think we’re stupid? There’s no way your son ended up in the hospital by taking two of those pills. Now stop lying to us and start telling the truth!”

We must monitor our gut instinct

and choose the response that will further our ability to reach our goal – the TRUTH! Stifling your first inclination and choosing the response that will further your endeavor is a measured, conscious decision. We must look for little ways to affirm the subject and provide her with the positive reinforcement necessary to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!


Paul and Enrique have been team teaching Interviewing & Interrogation together since 1997. They are the principals of Third Degree Communications, Inc.

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