The Science Of Memory Recall

By Gary Patzer May 1, 2023, 1:47 PM

The Science of Memory Recall: How to Improve Memory Retrieval in Investigative Interviews



Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Techniques for Improving Memory Recall
    1. Enhanced Cognitive Interviewing
    2. Context Reinstatement
    3. Cognitive Instruction
    4. Change of Perspective Technique
    5. Recalling Events in a Variety of Orders
  3. Practical Application of Memory Recall Techniques in Investigative Interviews
  4. Conclusion


Memory retrieval in witness interviews is a critical factor in the outcome of any investigation.

Research has shown memory is fallible.  Complex factors such as age, emotional state, stress, anxiety, and bias can all impact memory retrieval.


However, investigators and interviewers can draw on evidence based & researched techniques such as:

  • enhanced cognitive interviewing
  • context reinstatement
  • cognitive instruction
  • change of perspective technique
  • recalling events in a variety of order


In the following article, we will explore these techniques and their application within an investigative interview whether within a law enforcement or other scenario such as HR investigations, audits & other applications.



Techniques for Memory Retrieval


The ability of witnesses, victims, and suspects to recall and provide correct information about a specific event is a vital component of successful investigative interviewing.

Memory is not always accurate, and it is susceptible to a variety of influences including stress, trauma, suggestion, and the passage of time.


One of the key benefits of adopting an investigative interviewing vs an interrogation approach is that the investigative interview approach heavily leans into uncovering and eliciting verifiable information.

This is done through various tools and questioning techniques, as opposed to driving a conversation in the direction of a confession with a presumption of guilt.


The PEACE investigative interview framework (PEACE is an acronym for the five phases of the framework - plan & prepare, engage & explain, account, closure, and evaluation) includes a number of researched tools the interviewer can draw upon to support the memory retrieval process:



Enhanced Cogntive Interviewing (ECI):


This model of interviewing utilizes open ended questions and memory retrieval cues to enhance the interviewees ability to retrieve information.

It places the emphasis on facilitating the memory retrieval process, the interviewee is supported in memory recall of accurate information without any intimidation, manipulation, or coercion.


ECI gives us the structure of PEACE and contains the original parts of a Cognitive Interview, as seen below.



Context Reinstatement:


Context reinstatement supports the memory retrieval process by recreating the environment or taking the interviewee back to the emotional state they were in at the time of the event. Through context reinstatement, the interviewer can facilitate the interviewee retrieve a larger amount and more quality information.



Cognitive Instruction:


Cognitive instruction is used by providing prompts to interviewees to recall specific details about an event. For example, a witness maybe prompted to focus on recalling certain objects within a scene.



Change of Perspective Technique:


This technique asks interviewees to recall the event from different perspectives, such as from the perspective of another witness or suspect.  This supports the memory retrieval process.



Recalling Events in a Variety of Orders:


This technique supports the memory retrieval process by encouraging the interviewee to recall the event in a different order, such as backwards or randomly.



Practical Application of Memory Recall Techniques in Investigative Interviewing


Memory recall techniques can be trained to support law enforcement officer, HR investigations, audit, loss prevention and other scenarios requiring a fact finding mission to establish the truth.

Due to the non coercive  and non manipulative approach, the PEACE Investigative Interview methodology offers a variety of tools and models the interviewer can draw upon to improve the memory recall process.






Memory recall is a critical component to the direction and outcome of an investigation.  However, memory is fallible and without proper training, memory and associated information can also be contaminated (willingly or not) by the interviewer. This can impact the credibility of the investigation and its outcome.


Investigative professionals can be trained in the FIS PEACE Investigative Interview Course which educates and trains on a toolkit (including Enhanced Cognitive Interviewing, Context Reinstatement, Cognitive Instruction, Change of Perspective Technique, Recalling Events in a Variety of Orders).

These  can be drawn upon to improve the memory recall process and support the credibility  and outcome of an investigative interview.




Author: Gary Patzer


 Gary Patzer is FIS Operations Manager & Senior Trainer. Gary recently retired as a Sergeant with Loveland Police Department in Loveland Colorado to join FIS® International. He was in Law Enforcement Officer for over 33 years. 



FIS International are specialist trainers and consultants in PEACE investigative interviewing. 

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