Playing Mind Games: How Criminal Interrogations Work

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)


After graduating from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and becoming a trial lawyer, James A. Ardaiz quickly rose to the ranks of chief deputy district attorney. During those years, he interrogated hundreds of hardened criminals and murderers. It’s safe to say that he is an expert on homicide and criminal psychology.

From 1974 to 1980, Ardaiz was a deputy district attorney prosecuting homicide cases in Fresno County. At age 32, he attained the title of Justice James Ardaiz and served as a California state judge from 1980 until his retirement in 2011. In his book “Hands Through Stone: How Clarence Ray Allen Masterminded Murder From Behind Folsom’s Prison Walls,” he describes what it’s like to be in a homicide investigation, what a crime scene really looks like, and what a murder truly involves. He addresses what goes on during an interrogation, the impact on the people who work these cases, and what prosecutors have to deal with.

In an interview with Brain World, he explained how the criminal mind works, and how experienced interrogators see through the criminal’s lies to unravel the truth.

CULTURE AND CRIME

Not all criminals are created equal, nor indeed are all crimes. In order for law-enforcement officials to be able to see through the lies of someone who has committed a crime — as the suspect is trying to talk his way out of it — knowing the background of that individual is key. “The criminal mind works on a number of different levels,” says Ardaiz. “Of course, there are the psychotics and the sociopaths, but most of the people you deal with don’t fall into that category. Their value system depends upon the culture that they come from.” When it comes to gangs, for instance, the rules suddenly change completely.

“[Criminals] usually have a completely different value system than the average person in terms of what is acceptable or even laudable conduct,” Ardaiz explains. “We have families, unfortunately, that are dysfunctional and in which violence becomes the reaction that most people have to accommodating problems. So, when you deal with a person in terms of an interrogation, you’re looking to see psychologically what kind of a person you’re dealing with. Am I dealing with a person who made a mistake and is very frightened by their situation? If so, I use that fear to obtain the information that I need.”

Gender also matters. “There’s no difference between men and women when it comes to intelligence, but they do think differently. And so, when you sit down with a woman, you wouldn’t use the same kind of physical presence that you might use with a man. With a woman, you need to take a less aggressive approach, keeping your voice modulated and trying to get them to talk.” The whole key to interrogation, he says, is to get people to talk, and you really don’t care what they say as long as they just keep talking. “Almost always, they will lie, and you let them lie, and then you begin to pick the lies.”

SMART CRIMINALS FINISH LAST

The smarter a person is, says Ardaiz, the more complicated they make their story. They feel like they have to provide you with an explanation to everything, and that’s an advantage for a trained interrogator. “It seems kind of counterintuitive to most people, but smart people are used to talking their way out of things,” he explains.

“They keep talking. And dumb people, when they can’t handle a situation, they just clam up and stop talking. Or they tell the same stupid lie over and over.” Talking is key to an interrogation. If a suspect doesn’t talk, there’s not much to be gained out of the exercise. “When you’re confronting a person who has been caught and they’re being interrogated, generally speaking what they do is fairly simple. They will lie, they will deny, then they will try and provide you with an explanation.”

The key to manipulation, however, lies in the explanation because some criminals aren’t just smart; they’re prepared to spin a believable tale. Plausibility is one of the things that trained officers get routinely manipulated by. “If a person gives you an answer that is plausible in the context of the evidence, you react to that,” says Ardaiz. “But when you see that kind of thing happen, it’s because of somebody who has actually thought about it in advance. It’s premeditated. They have considered, and they have planned their psychological escape route.” You can also be misled by your own stereotypes, notes Ardaiz. With children, for instance, law-enforcement officers have to be really careful. “Children are extremely influenced by elders talking to them, and, if they have been influenced to believe that something has happened to them, they confabulate. They confuse reality with fiction, and the fiction becomes the reality. And then they start to talk to you about things that allegedly happened.”

Another thing interrogators have to be watchful of, he says, is their own expectations. “We project a lot of expectations and stereotypes onto other people. You don’t expect a highly educated person to be a violent sociopath, and yet they may well be taking you in that direction. I’ve had that happen, when a doctor suddenly turned to me and said, ‘Why would I do something like that? I save lives.’ There have been instances like that, when I walked out of the room with my investigators and said, ‘You know, I’m not sure.’ That’s how they do it. They play on your expectations, just like you use your expectations to deal with them.”

According to Ardaiz, the interrogator’s advantage is that the other person is off-balance. “But if you’re not off-balance, I lose that advantage. And if you appear self-assured and not at all afraid when you’re talking to me, that is consistent with someone who is innocent. And so you undermine my confidence that way.”

WOULD YOU BE ABLE TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CRIMINAL AND A SAINT?

Would a brain scan of a criminal mind be different than a brain scan of the mind of a Buddhist monk?

“I think certain people are more disposed to violence, and their reactions to things are going to be more emotional than others’,” says Ardaiz. “I think environmentally we control those personalities.

We control our urges. But when you look at most people that are of a criminal nature and who commit violent acts, their reaction to most things is excessive and violent. I think you could take a fairly passive person and at least make them engage in aggressive acts by putting them into bad situations, but I don’t think it would be their natural inclination. Some people like it, and others just don’t.”


But one thing remains for certain — mind games are a natural part of the process.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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