Mirroring and its Value During Interviews and Interrogations
What is Mirroring?
Recently I was talking to one of my sons about a possible location to spend our spring vacation. My left hand was in my pocket and I was illustrating with my right hand. My left foot was slightly extended. As my son listened to my ideas and discussed possible activities, his right hand went into his pocket, he illustrated with his left hand and his right foot was extended slightly toward me. His comments and facial expressions appeared positive, but his posture left no doubt that he agreed with the vacation plans, for his posture mirrored my own. Mirroring refers to the tendency of two people to reflect each other’s posture when they are relating well to each other or are in agreement.
The opposite phenomenon is also true. When two people disagree or are emotionally distant they often assume different postures. Consider the traffic stop where the driver is asked to step out of the vehicle and talk to the police officer. The officer may stand frontally aligned with the driver with his hands exposed using occasional illustrators. The driver may cross his arms and orient his body away from the officer. These non-congruent postures should alert the officer that the driver may not be accepting the premise for the stop or may be otherwise non-cooperative.
The explanation for mirroring may relate to the fact that a person’s posture represents the foundation for other nonverbal communication. An individual’s posture reflects their interest level, emotional involvement and confidence. When expressing thoughts, ideas or feelings the one person who will surely accept them is a reflected image of that same person. To say this another way, when we have a conversation with a mirror, the mirror will always agree with our position.
Use of Mirroring During an Interview
During an interview, the investigator should be aware of his own posture and assess whether the suspect’s posture is mirroring his own, which would generally support openness and candor. For example, if the investigator is sitting with his right leg crossed over his left leg at the knee and he is leaning slightly to the left, it would be an indication of sincerity if the suspect eventually crossed his left leg over his right and leaned slightly to the right. To test this assessment, the investigator may assume a new posture, for example placing both feet on the floor and leaning slightly back in the chair. If the suspect eventually assumes the mirrored posture, it further supports the opinion that the suspect is being forthright.
Another technique to assess mirroring during an interview is for the investigator to mirror the suspect’s posture. In fact, therapists teach the technique of consciously mirroring another person’s posture to better relate to that person’s feelings and orientation. If a suspect is sitting upright in the chair with one foot extended in front of the other, the investigator could assume the mirrored posture. One of two things will happen. The suspect, if truthful, will be comfortable with the mirrored posture and may start to open up and offer more meaningful information. A deceptive suspect, on the other hand, is likely to experience anxiety when the investigator mirrors his posture and may switch to a new posture.
A caveat is required here which is that if a suspect exhibits a posture reflecting aggression (forward lean, arms crossed or threatening gestures toward the investigator) mirroring this posture is likely to result in an escalation of aggression by the suspect. This is obviously an undesirable situation in an arrest, interview or interrogation. Under this circumstance we teach investigators to act in an opposite manner from the suspect. If the suspect is yelling, the investigator should talk slower and at a conversational level; if the suspect extends his hand toward the investigator in a threatening manner, the investigator should extend one or both arms with the palms exposed upward. In other words, to maintain control of the situation, the investigator must not fuel it by mirroring the suspect’s aggressive behavior.
Use of Mirroring During an Interrogation
The primary benefit of mirroring occurs during an interrogation. During early stages of an interrogation the investigator’s posture should reflect confidence. That is, he should have his feet flat on the floor, his hands should be extended and there should be a forward lean to his body. This is necessary to respond to the suspect’s early denials. However, as the interrogation continues and the suspect starts to mentally debate whether to tell the truth, the investigator should assume the confession posture. That is, he should break gaze down toward the floor, and go into a head and body slump. The guilty suspect, who wants to talk about the circumstances of his crime, will often mirror the investigator’s posture and also assume a head and body slump. Once the suspect is in this posture he should be asked an alternative question to elicit the first admission of guilt.
After a suspect has accepted the alternative question, the investigator now needs to bring him back into the conversation to elicit the full confession. Most suspects are reluctant to discuss the details of their crime. This task is rendered much easier if the investigator mirrors the suspect’s posture at this stage of the interrogation. Often the suspect will have a forward lean to the body, exhibit very little eye contact and may have hand contact with the face. The investigator who sits up erect in the chair, grabs and pen and paper and, while looking directly at the suspect, says, “Okay, tell me what happened” is apt to get a sketchy account of the crime. On the other hand, if the investigator mirrors the suspect’s posture, perhaps by placing his left hand over his eyes, assuming a slight forward lean in the chair and directing his eye contact primarily to the floor the same question is bound to elicit a much more forthright account of the crime.
In conclusion, because mirroring occurs at a preconscious level, it serves as a valuable behavior symptom to assess a suspect’s candor during an interview and also as a procedure to allow a suspect to feel more comfortable telling the truth during an interrogation. This principle applies not only with criminal suspects, but in everyday interpersonal communication. The next time you find yourself in disagreement with another person, mirror their posture and there will be a tendency (on both your parts) to seek agreement. An easier task is to observe two conversing individuals. If there is general agreement between the two, their mirrored postures will reflect this.