What do we do when we have a conversation? Turns out, we do a lot of anticipating and predicting about what the other person is going to say. This predictive process makes our normal conversations better, or at least more readily intelligible. In an interesting study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that “language processing is comprised of an anticipatory stage and a perceptual stage: both speakers and listeners take advantage of predictability by ‘preprocessing’ predictable representations during the anticipatory stage, which subsequently affects how those representations are processed during perception.” This would seem to have implications for the medico-legal world because of the reliance on oral statements, whether recorded or not, formal or informal in claims administration. Specifically, the quality of the answers one gets in a statement can potentially be manipulated when either party understands the predictive process involved in conversation. For example, when speakers introduce unexpected words or phrases, listeners become more prone to error: “When subsequently confronted with unpredicted words, listeners/readers typically show a prediction error response.” A clever interviewer could use this information to keep the interviewee off guard, which may help elicit information the interviewee had been consciously trying not to reveal. Conversely, a clever interviewee will be conscious of her tendency to answer based on both prediction and cognition and will take steps to limit the affect prediction has on her answers.
One simple technique interviewees can use is to (silently) repeat every question that is asked of them back to themselves before answering. This focuses the interviewee on comprehension and cognition rather than prediction, which will help the interviewee limit her response to what was in fact asked and not on what her predictive mind assumed was asked. This also may be effective because the prediction happens so quickly and over such a short period of time. According to the authors of the study, “[A]nticipation may precede perception by as little as 200 milliseconds…” This is an incredibly short time interval and any device that an interviewee can employ to slow cognition down will allow her to limit the tendency to anticipate where the speaker is going with a question and instead to hear the actual question that is asked.
One of the things that our brains do brilliantly well is to construct order of the world around us. This predictive aspect of speech is part of that. We are hard-wired to recognize patterns and make connections; hence, we gravitate to coherent narrative versions of events. It is difficult for our brains to process events without linking them together causally. Our conversations reflect this tendency as well. In fact, when people do not conform to the normal way conversation works in this regard it is noticeable and such speakers often seem odd, idiosyncratic, or eccentric.
The problem with the predictive process of speech and our tendency to turn our conversations into coherent narratives is that it inhibits our ability to ask the right questions and give the best answers. When taking a statement, the interviewer should keep in mind that the process is not a conversation in the ordinary sense of the word. That is why, for example, it is imperative to wait until the interviewee completes her response to each question before moving on to the next one. While normal conversation works better when we allow the predictive aspect of conversation to fulfill its function, in a statement the predictive aspect can lead the interviewer away from valuable areas of inquiry simply by virtue of dovetailing the interviewer’s thoughts about what to ask next with the interviewee’s response. Instead, interviewers should be mindful of the process and ask questions that occasionally interrupt the narrative flow to keep her attention focused on what the interviewee is actually saying. One such strategy could involve interjecting questions about an unrelated topic periodically. For example, during questions about the facts of an accident the interviewer might want to ask a question about current prescriptions that the interviewee takes. The question will feel strange when asked, but it is surprising how quickly this jars the interviewer back to the kind of focused attention that is necessary to obtain an effective statement. And that, after all, is the goal.
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