So after you got up this morning, had some waffles, and murdered your neighbor, how did you get away from the scene? Did you walk or did you take your car? Answering this question might lead to incarceration due to the Recency Principle.

The Recency Principle is pretty simple. If you ask a person a series of questions quickly they will usually answer the last question only. Ask them a question with many disputable parts, and they will usually only respond to the last part. Ask them a question that you stop and reword, giving it a new context, they will tend to answer only the reworded question. In casual conversation, this isn't a problem. If I ask someone a question, but re-word it half way through, we both know I only meant the reworded question. Formal interrogations get a little more complicated.


"When you became angry at the victim, and went over to his house, what did you initially say when he opened the door?"

Answering the last part of that question makes it looks like the first part of the question isn't in doubt. These compound questions happen all the time, and when someone isn't given a chance to object to, or even talk about, the first part of the question, they can appear to "admit" to a state of mind, or an intention, without actually ever addressing it. It's possible to slip a lot of information into a long question. During one interrogation, an interviewer asked a man being questioned if he recalled being shown a pair of sneakers that were wet. The man said yes. The problem was, during the course of the question, the interrogator asserted that the sneakers were recovered from a certain spot during a search, that the search was consensual, and that they were in a plastic bag. By answering the last part of the question, the man appeared to have agreed to it all.

People obeying the Recency Principle can also appear to negate certain possibilities. Ask a person two questions, with slightly different contexts, and if they answer the last question, it can appear that they don't agree with the first question. When a witness is asked two questions in a row - Did a certain person seem to be at the scene to buy something? Did he appear to be hanging out with two other men? - and when they only answer the second question, it makes it look like the answer to the first question is negative. Of course, a person can be in a store to buy something and hanging out with other people, but if a person says, "He was hanging out with two other men," it looks like he had no other reason to be there. It takes a lot of calm, thought, and fortitude, to think about and answer each question, and part of a question, in turn.

Though few of us has been interrogated by the police, more than a few of us have been in a fight. It's then that these questions trip off the tongue.


"Since you have no respect for me, was it easy to go over and start talking to him?"

"Why do you always do this? Why did you have to do it this time, too?"

Interestingly, people are more likely to call out questions like these when they're in a fight than when they're being interrogated by officials. They'd probably have more luck sassing the police.


[Via Learning Theories A-Z, Coerced Confessions.]

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