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Behavior Provoking Questions: The Punishment Question

The Behavior Analysis Interview is a structured interview, developed by John E. Reid and Associates, designed to elicit behavior symptoms indicative of truthfulness or deception. The core of the interview consists of asking a series of behavior provoking questions. These questions tend to elicit different responses from a suspect who is innocent of a crime than from a suspect who is guilty of a crime. Research has been conducted on these questions to develop models which define common characteristics of a truthful or deceptive response. This web tip will present a behavior provoking question called “The Punishment Question.”

The punishment question is generically phrased, “What do you think should happen to the person who (did crime?)” It is important that the punishment question specifically address the issue under investigation. In a homicide case, for example, the suspect would be asked, “What do you think should happen to the person who killed Jeff Johnson?” If the issue under investigation was the theft of $2500 from a vault, the punishment question would be phrased, “What do you think should happen to the person who took that $2500?” If a claimant was being interviewed concerning a possible fraudulent auto theft claim, the question would be worded, “What do you think should happen to a person who would lie about having his car stolen?”

When an innocent suspect is asked to cast judgment against the person guilty of the crime he has little difficulty expressing a harsh punishment. After all, it is because of someone else’s crime that the suspect is being questioned. Typical innocent responses to the punishment question include, “He should be prosecuted and sent to jail!”; “For killing that clerk I hope he gets life in prison!”; or, “He should be fired and probably prosecuted. Stealing $2500 is not petty theft!”

A key response to listen for from the innocent suspect to the punishment question is whether the suspect is talking about the guilty person as being someone else. Actual examples of this from verified innocent suspects we have interviewed include, “Well, I’d like to have a shot at him first!”; “After what he’s put me through I hope they throw him in jail”; and, “To do that to a girl this guy’s got to be really sick.” A very religious suspect who was verified as innocent responded to the punishment question as follows: “It’s against my beliefs to judge anyone harshly, but after you find out who did this I would like to sit down with him and do a little preaching because his soul needs saving.”

Innocent suspects offer a personal opinion in their response to the punishment question. The suspect has been asked specifically what do you think should happen to the person who committed the crime. In all of the above examples, the response reflects a personal opinion.

In addition to the above verbal responses, the innocent suspect’s response to the punishment question is often accompanied by characteristic nonverbal and paralinguistic cues. Nonverbally, the suspect will offer direct eye contact and perhaps lean forward in his chair. Because the question may stimulate an emotional response, the suspect may use illustrators (hands moving away from the body). Within the paralinguistic channel, innocent suspects offer longer, more thoughtful responses than deceptive suspects; after all, they are speculating about someone else’s crime. Most typically, innocent suspects will ponder the punishment question before answering it because it is a reflective question and, therefore, a delay of thoughtful deliberation is not uncommon. The volume and strength of conviction, however, will remain steady throughout the suspect’s response.

When a deceptive suspect is asked the punishment question he is being asked to judge himself. Applying the axiom that guilty suspects believe that their crime was somewhat justified, it is not surprising that one of the models defining the guilty suspect’s response to the punishment question is to offer a lenient punishment. Examples of this include, “Well, I think probation may be appropriate”; “Maybe pay back the money”; “Perhaps some type of psychological treatment would be best”; or, “Since no one was really hurt, I think supervision would be sufficient.”

Deceptive responses to the punishment question may fail to talk about the guilty person as being someone else. Often, the deceptive suspect may insert some sort of conditional language within his response so as to excuse his own situation. A suspect guilty of molesting a young boy responded to the punishment question, “Well, if a person has done this to dozens of children I think that has to be taken seriously.” A suspect who eventually confessed to stealing $1000 answered the punishment question as follows: “I wouldn’t take it to court unless they had actual physical evidence to show that the person took the money.” A suspect who murdered his mother-in-law responded, “Gee, that’s a tough one. What happened certainly wasn’t good — I mean it was terrible. Certainly the matter should go to court.”

A deceptive suspect may evade a direct response to the punishment question and not offer a personal opinion. The most common form of evasion is for the suspect not to take any position at all, e.g., “I don’t know. That will be up to a judge.” Other evasive responses to the punishment question include, “I’m sure he will prosecuted and sent to prison” and, “It is company policy to fire anyone who steals.” As these last two examples illustrate, when a suspect’s response to the punishment question includes a harsh judgment it is important to determine if the suspect is offering his own personal judgement. If he does not, he is evading the question.

A deceptive suspect may engage in significant nonverbal behaviors when responding to the punishment question. He may avoid direct eye contact, cross or uncross his legs or engage in various grooming behaviors. Within paralinguistic evaluations, deceptive responses to the punishment question tend to be shorter and more guarded. The deceptive suspect may answer this question too quickly, without giving it adequate thought or attempt to disguise the anxiety the question caused by repeating the question before answering it (for the purpose of buying time to think up the best possible response.) Finally, the deceptive suspect may lose interest in his response where he begins his response at a normal volume and rate, but by the time he finishes the response, both his volume and rate decrease significantly. In this instance, even though the suspect may suggest a harsh punishment for the guilty person, he does not really believe his answer.

It is important to remember that the punishment question is one of many behavior provoking questions that should be asked during a properly conducted Behavior Analysis Interview. It would most certainly be improper to assess a suspect’s guilt or innocence based on a response to a single behavior provoking question. For information on interpreting other behavior provoking questions, see our text The Investigator Anthology.


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