Amina’s Blog



Building trust not mistrust: An intelligent approach to intelligence gathering


The brutal attacks in recent weeks in Beirut, Egypt, Mali and Paris have invoked fear throughout our society. The concerns for the safety and well being of loved ones and fellow citizens have compelled decision makers to take rapid action under conditions of great uncertainty. At another more nuanced level, much less obvious but equally important, is the fear among those who may hold information that could prevent future attacks but are afraid to speak out. Those individuals may include unassuming family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and colleagues of the perpetrators behind the attacks. These witnesses may knowingly or unknowingly hold vital clues as to the whereabouts of those responsible and be in a position to help prevent future assaults on our society. They may however remain silent for fear of being thrust into the media panic and society’s reaction as well as more serious repercussions such as discrimination and revenge attacks. At this critical time we need to draw on all our skills in gathering information from potential witnesses in order that decision making is informed by sound evidence.  So what can we bring from our understanding of witness psychology and obtaining reliable information from eyewitness’s?


There is widespread knowledge as well as agreement among psychologists and practitioners that the best information is gathered in face-to-face interviews with reluctant witnesses.  Reluctant witnesses include those who are fearful, intimidated and vulnerable as a result of their status in society such as children and people with disabilities. The techniques we use to gather information from such witnesses are well understood by professionals who routinely deal with vulnerable witnesses. They have been endorsed by the National Police Lead for Investigative Interviewing and the UK was one of the first to advocate national training of police officers in investigative interviewing protocols for information gathering from vulnerable witnesses.  Using a scientific base of what is known to yield accurate information we have trained thousands of police officers over the years in best practice when it comes to getting witnesses to divulge information that they have.  We should be focusing our resources on engaging with potential witnesses on the ground using our skilled interviewers.


The most valuable lesson we have learned is that building rapport with our witness is the most fundamental dimension for eliciting information reliably and effectively.  It is through rapport building that we can gain the witness’s trust and respect and it is well established that a witness is= more likely to disclose under these conditions.  Once we have gained the trust of a witness we can apply psychological techniques that can help them to probe deep in their memories for any relevant information about any persons of interest, conversations, locations, plans and actions. Without building rapport and securing a witness’s trust we are unlikely to obtain the information we need. Our police force have methods of questioning witnesses in an ethically responsible manner and with appropriate use of open ended questioning can yield accurate information of forensic value.   Our knowledge is based on sound theory and empirical research as well as practical experience and training in gathering information from reluctant witnesses. So what are we waiting for?


An obvious place to start would be to equip front-line community police officers with the high level interviewing skills that are required. This group are ideally placed to engage in a rapport-based interviewing given the place they occupy in our communities. Resources for community policing are stretched but we are missing an opportunity to use our advanced knowledge of information gathering and apply it in questioning those who may be able to provide us with leads.  Human beings are naturally predisposed to connect socially and they do that best in a face to face setting where they feel safe.  Where surveillance is based on a climate of mistrust, genuine rapport building and information gathering is based on the principle of trust. We trust those who appear familiar to us, people from our in-groups, those with whom we share values and beliefs, and those we respect.  In recent years the efforts of psychologists and practitioners to address child sexual abuse have equipped thousands of police officers in the UK with some excellent skills in information gathering techniques form vulnerable witnesses. Now is the time to cash in on this and put our skills in questioning intimidated vulnerable and reluctant witnesses to the test in a new context.


We urge the government to call equip our community police officers with the high level specialist interviewing skills required to collect information from people who may feel fearful and threated. From a psychological perspective the solution lies in using police officers from diverse backgrounds to build mutual respect and trust within our communities.  This will help us work together and dispel the fears and misconceptions that are preventing members of our society from coming forward and disclosing vital information. A final note of caution: these efforts can easily be undermined by punitive responses by our government and legal system. A mother may want her son to provide information to the police that would make the community safe but not want him to be imprisoned for possessing that intelligence. The future lies in an intelligent approach to intelligence gathering.


Amina Memon   Professor of Psychology Royal Holloway University

David LaRooy   Lecturer in Law   Royal Holloway University






The most powerful tool for reaching out to others: Rapport


We all want to be successful at what we do- be it in our work, in our interactions with colleagues, in our personal relationships, in our hobbies and in whatever goals we set ourselves in life. For feedback – we rely on our audience. In other words the very people that we have to connect and engage with. We need to effectively establish rapport. As an example, lets take one of my areas of expertise – how to question police witnesses to get information stored in their memory about what they saw and heard during a crime. In the 1980’s I stumbled upon a new “memory jogging” technique. In the 1990’s like a good scientist I spent much time trying to figure out why this technique produced so much more information from eyewitnesses. The answer was…




Rapport. In order to use the special techniques effectively the police officer had to make a connection with the witness, to establish trust, to put the witness at ease, to actively listen to the witness. This involved a role-reversal such that they had to transfer control to the witness, putting the witness first, they had to admit their ignorance to the witness and give the witness the driving seat (see the story of my career, Memon, 2014).


Today again I see the power of effective Rapport and this time in my charity work with Women’s Health and Family Services (Tower Hamlets, London). Inspirational leader Sharon Hanoomansingh – highly skilled at establishing rapport with anyone from any background – asked her audience in the House of Commons to hear the voices of the brave women who have suffered the vile practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). A report released today on community led change in behavior provides us with hope for the future of these women. The research conducted by WHFS would not have been possible were it not for the skill with which ‘community champions’ established rapport with their audience and engaged them in discussion. It was all about giving a voice to the community to listen with mutual attention and respect and to allow them to speak without imposing an agenda based on stereotypes and campaigning.


Thank you WHFS for once again showing me the power of Rapport in reaching out.

Hear Our Voices – Women’s Health and Family Services

Literature Review: Community based approach to addressing FGM/C:

Memon, A. (2014). My Journey from Research to Impact: Long Road and Much Traffic, Applied Cognitive Psychology. Published online in Wiley Online Library DOI: 10.1002/acp.3079




It’s been an exciting couple of weeks starting with graduation in Boston, and after celebrations as a Harvard mom I headed to Switzerland for the international conference on investigative interviewing

Both events (graduation and conference) were emotional, from the achievement at Harvard to a reunion in Lausanne with my lovely PhD supervisor from 1982-1985, Vicki Bruce.  We managed to capture a special moment on our conference dinner cruise, a photo of Vicki, myself, my former Phd student Fiona Gabbert and her current PhD student Ashleigh McGregor. It’s a shame Alan Baddeley wasn’t there, as then we would have got 5 generations!












There was no time to recover from travels as this week I attended the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict -the largest gathering ever brought together to discuss the subject, and there were 3 days of events all free with attendees from over 100 countries.  Dame Angelina Jolie and sidekick Hague did their best to make sure the event attracted the attention of stakeholders. Hearing the heart wrenching stories from women from war torn zones and poverty stricken countries, it is clear that seeking justice is beyond the reach of many women, and it isn’t even a priority for them. For these women, safety, economic security, health and the well being of their children is more important than attributing blame.  The launch this week of the international protocol for dealing with rape and sexual violence in conflict aims to bring some consistency in the investigation of sex crimes and collection of evidence for future prosecutions. I was naturally curious about the guidance on questioning which is provided in Annex 1, but all I found were some examples of questions asking for specific contextual references with no mention of rapport building and how to engage with someone who may be traumatised. Perhaps the evidence workbook mentioned as a reference guide provides further information.

If the summit can go a little way in making sure there is support on the ground to protect the vulnerable from sexual exploitation and abuse it will have achieved its aim. Lets hope that the efforts of NGOs, governments, experts, faith leaders and international organisations do make a difference.


The week ended with an inspirational talk from John Amaechi OBE, former NBA basketball star, organisational psychologist, and high performance executive coach which is timely given the world cup.  John made it clear that if people want to be themselves and play their best then the culture of football has to change. John has his own charitable sports and community centre with over 2,500 young people per week going through its doors and not just getting taught about sport but about leadership, communication and life skills. An impressive man and I’m not just going by size here!

















Seeking Inspirational Women: From the city to east end and a bottle of Good Hope – 15/03/14

In my search for inspiration, I attended some events that coincided with international women’s day. The first was the Power of Diversity: Exercising Power breakfast session at Southbank.  The theme was using power and leadership roles to change people around us and the culture and what gatekeeping functions should we serve when spotting talent. The inspirational women in the panel included Baroness Virginia Bottomley whose gem was “ Women should be like Sperm and shoot out in a clear direction.” (or something like that). Another of the panelists was the amazing Nicola Horlick mother of 6 and chairman of Rockpool Investments who provided a nice illustration of diversity (and creativity) in staff selection and team building. Two of her best hires had been musicians in their former lives.  The session took the form of a Q and A with the panel, and the word diversity came up a lot but the audience were predominantly white professional women who one assumes had achieved some success in their careers and were seeking to become even more powerful. I asked the panel about women in academia stuck mid-career, who may lack confidence to take risks or push themselves forward and were not getting mentored. After the session a number of people came up to talk to me with advice–One suggestion was suggested I look at the work of the 30 percent club

I went from this high profile central London event (sponsored by Bloomberg) to the heart of east London to the Annual General Meeting of Women’s Health and Family Services (WHFS) in Tower Hamlets.  The event was almost exclusively made up of female volunteers and visitors from the local community and here the majority of faces young, working class women from diverse ethnic backgrounds- South Asian, West Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Somali to name a few. A sea of smiling faces greeted me and the event began with some entertainment from Vietnamese dancers. An inspirational and devoted leader of WHFS Sharon Hanooman (dear friend of 30 years) took the floor. We heard about how the volunteers of WHFS had changed individual women’s lives, had improved the health practices of community members – small changes, from encouraging Somali men to eat vegetables to providing support to vulnerable expectant mothers in the community (maternity mates).   A young mum who had suffered emotional abuse during her pregnancy sat with her 6 week old and tearfully recounted how maternity mates has been her salvation.  The volunteers too told their stories of how they had changed people’s lives and how much more there was to do. They were inspiring, their compassion and dedication touched me and for these women just being able to do something meaningful outside the home gave them such a sense of power and control over their lives. The training that WHFS was also opening doors to paid work and further education and training. These were women to be admired and respected for the steps they have taken to reach out to the most vulnerable members of their community.  WHFS despite major funding cuts had trained their volunteers instilling in them such passion and pride in their work.  Check them out

Last but not least, I had cause to celebrate this week as one of my former PhD students (got promoted to Professor, the first. Looking back over the years our working relationship was build on friendship and I have always looked upon her as an equal. Prof Hope is pictured below (left) enjoying a drink with another successful woman from my academic family, Fiona Gabbert. Like a good friends we shared a bottle during a recent mentoring session- a Shiraz from S. Africa (appropriately named): Good Hope!














Did you know what you wanted to do when you were 16?  Did you question what going to University and choosing one subject area would do for your future career?  Were you interested in what makes an academic tick and how they unwind? This week I met a charming group of sixth form students at a state school in Hackney, East London who had thought deeply about these questions. The students are studying A level Psychology and had covered some of my research in class. When I offered to come and talk to them about Psychology and University they were ready for me. Going by the warm welcome and smiley faces they were thrilled to have me visit and made it easy for me to engage with them. What struck me most about this group was their thirst for knowledge about the subject and for my personal perspective on research and life in academia.  A refreshing change from the questions I am used to about coursework and exams. These youngsters were more interested in whether a university education would fire their passions. The questions were intelligent, open and honest. They wanted to know what a psychology degree could do for them, they asked why research was a part of my career, the role it played, how I got my work into textbooks, how I responded to criticisms of my research. They even asked me how one of my mentors had reacted when I had critiqued his line of research. They were also curious as to whether I got paid for publishing papers and challenged whether laboratory studies were the best way to study eyewitness memory.   My favourite question was how I connect with other psychologists in my area and what we talk about when we meet up.  That was an easy one to answer. I told them the last time I saw Prof Elizabeth Loftus (they all knew the name) we had enjoyed some vodka courtesy of some Russian psychologists and sang Abba songs in the elevator of our hotel in Stockholm!  Who says psychologists don’t have fun.   All in all I came away from this school thinking what a lovely bunch of young people with a bright future ahead of them.