Getting to know people by sympathetic but hard-boiled questioning is the best way to gain information, as well as to help them.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, August 29, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

How to Interrogate Terrorists

The latest political brouhaha is over whether the U.S. Justice Department will pursue charges that CIA interrogators tortured detainees. Conservative talk show hosts - and former Vice President Dick Cheney - immediately chimed in that we will be unable to obtain the crucial information we need to protect ourselves from terrorist attacks if we can no longer torture detainees.

I disagree. As a lawyer and a psychologist, I've questioned quite a few people. I don't think assaulting people is the best way to get information. You learn the most from, and about, people by getting into their heads. The best method for accessing people's heads - even those accused of serious crimes - is listening to them. This requires getting them to talk unguardedly.

What is the first thing a defense attorney advises a criminal suspect? To shut up! Because if people talk, they will reveal themselves.

We know this because of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. You remember Raskolnikov, right? The impoverished student killed and robbed a pawnbroker and her roommate. Really, Raskolnikov was a nice guy (he wanted to help the poor, sweet prostitute, Sonia, whose alcoholic father just died). Or at least he thought he was. Everybody thinks they're nice, or good, or justified in their actions.

Raskolnikov expressed his inner views in an article he scribbled entitled, "On Crime" in which he described his "extraordinary man" theory. Do you see where he's going with this? In a nutshell, Raskalnikov thought he was an extraordinary person. Such individuals are justified in doing anything, including murdering ordinary people, if they have a good purpose.

Along comes Porfiry, the extraordinary investigator of the crime. Porfiry's method is to engage Raskolnikov in discussing his theories. What an aimless bore that Porfiry was! Talk, talk, talk! Raskolnikov was concerned - was Porfiry interrogating him about the murder? Nothing could be further from his mind, Porfiry promised. Columbo used the same method a century later.  (Crime and Punishment was published in 1866 - the year after the Civil War ended and Lincoln was assassinated.)

So Raskolnikov talks, and talks, and talks. Porfiry never has to accuse Raskolnikov of the murder - yet eventually he confesses. Was it guilt that made him confess? Was it to provide moral justification for his actions? Or was it just that after you talk long enough, you'll tell a careful listener everything?

Porfiry is an active listener, querying Raskolnikov and drawing him out - challenging his ideas - but not antagonistically. Rather, the investigator simply wants to understand. He also praises the murderer, even expressing mock admiration for him!  Porfiry's job is not to evaluate philosophical truths - just like the police and the CIA are not about proving criminals and terrorists wrong.  Their jobs are to elicit information and to prosecute criminals.  And sympathetic questioning and listening is how you get people to spill the beans - even to confess.

Here's the funny thing - Raskolnikov feels better after confessing. People like to express themselves, to justify themselves, to believe they are superior, to be comforted. Confession is good for the soul. True, Raskolnikov was sent to Siberia. But then he at last had closure.

He would thus have his redemption, even salvation, either in heaven or here on earth. When he got out, Sonia would be waiting for him. It was a win-win!