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Rapport building: A waste of time with eyewitnesses?

Friday, June 7, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

RapportMost of us likely think taking the time to build rapport in an interview setting makes sense. You want the interviewee to trust you and feel comfortable sharing information. But what about in a crime interview? Is it worth it? Specifically, does it accomplish anything other than making the eyewitness feel good? If even that?

Researchers wondered especially about rapport-building with eyewitnesses and whether it would help witnesses recall additional (and accurate) information about what they had seen. They were particularly interested in whether rapport would make a difference in the accuracy of eyewitnesses exposed to misinformation about the crime scene.

The researchers recruited 111 undergraduates at a southeastern university (average age 20; 66% Hispanic, 11% Caucasian, 11% African American, 3% Asian and 7% “other”; no gender information was provided). The research design was a 2 (misinformation either present or absent) x 3 (rapport: no rapport, unidirectional rapport, bidirectional rapport).

Participants viewed a brief (1 minute long) mock-crime video depicting a theft (a man takes money from the victim’s purse and then leaves). Afterwards, the participants received a “police report” to read which either was accurate or introduced misinformation to the participant. The “misinformation” police report contained 10 incorrect details (such as saying the victim had coffee) and 7 “modifications” (saying the room had 5 chairs when there were only 3).

Then the participants were interviewed about what they saw in the video by a researcher who either engaged in no rapport, unidirectional rapport (the witness is invited to disclose but the interviewer does not) or bidirectional rapport (the interviewer also discloses). “The unidirectional script sought self-disclosure only from the interviewee by asking each witness to provide personal information (e.g., “Tell me about your family”). In the bi-directional condition, the interviewer sought interviewee self disclosure and additionally disclosed personal information about herself (e.g., “I have two brothers and sisters who live in California”).”

What the researchers found was this:

‘Eyewitnesses’ who were exposed to the higher rapport levels with the interviewer offered reports of the video more accurately than those in lower levels of rapport. In other words, building rapport with the eyewitness communicates interest in the witness and this seems to result in more accurate recall.

Failing to build rapport in those cases where witnesses were exposed to misinformation resulted in the highest incorporation of false details into the witness reports.

Using open-ended questions was important, and especially important among those who had rapport with the interviewer. These witnesses were able to recall higher levels of accurate facts.

However, the interviewer self-disclosure made no difference in how much witnesses recalled; it only affected accuracy of reports. Specifically, while the self-disclosure by the interviewer took more time, it made no difference in terms of accuracy in recall. What mattered was not the self-disclosure by the interviewer but instead, the rapport between the interviewer and the witness.

The researchers discuss the importance of rapport-building in eyewitness interviews in order to obtain the most accurate and complete recollections from the witness. We are more interested in all the ways an eyewitness interview can go horribly wrong. We see examples of it over and over again. The researchers carefully trained and monitored their research assistants to ensure they were building rapport correctly. That doesn’t happen in most law enforcement environments where the goal is to get the information and investigate the crime.

This is another situation where observing videotapes (if any) of the witness interview can give you a sense of whether the witness may have given a less than reliable report. Did the witness and the interviewer have any observable rapport? Were the questions open-ended or leading? Was the witness given the opportunity to freely recall what they observed or not? Depending on the answers to those questions and whether you are Defense or Prosecution–you may want to consider educating jurors through an expert witness on the well-known problems with eyewitness identifications.

Vallano, J., & Compo, N. (2011). A comfortable witness is a good witness: rapport-building and susceptibility to misinformation in an investigative mock-crime interview Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25 (6), 960-970 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1789


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