CQUni Knows Forensic Psychology

Get to know Stephen

My name is Stephen Moston and I’m an Associate Professor and the Head of Course for Forensic Psychology at CQUniversity.

The Graduate Certificate in Applied Forensic Psychology is a new course for CQUniversity, starting in February 2019.

Forensic psychology is the study of behaviour and thought in a criminal context. It focuses on how to get suspects to talk about what they’ve done (and hopefully admit to what they’ve actually done), but it also deals with how to get the most accurate evidence from witnesses. Obviously one of the groups that we’re interested in is police officers who interview witnesses and suspects, but we also want to help psychologists and anyone who has anything to do with the criminal justice system or who wants information from people that must be accurate.

It wasn’t until after I did my PhD on the study of children’s eyewitness testimony that I began to realise that children aren’t actually terrible witnesses. The problem was the interviewers. So, once we actually started teaching interviewers how to say the right words in the right ways everything started improving rapidly. And that’s why interview techniques and forensic psychology are so important, it was a brand-new area that no one had ever looked into before. I was the very first psychologist to ever study police interrogation skills. So, when I started with the Metropolitan Police in London, they gave me a lot of leeway to really look into it. I studied thousands of cases, watched lots of interviews, and tried to identify what works in any interview and what doesn’t. The list if what didn’t work was very long.

Everything that you see on TV is a kind of fantasy world of police interviewing and it’s not realistic at all. It makes great TV. But things like DNA results don’t come back at the press of a button and you can’t endlessly blow up a photograph. What we see on TV is a fantasy. It’s designed to entertain. Interviewing doesn’t require high tech technology and it certainly doesn’t require any fantasy techniques. It simply requires being organised and planning and knowing what you’re actually doing is a result of a lot of interaction and a lot of practice interviews.

Psychology is premised on talking to people who want to be helped. You go to see a therapist because you want something fixed. Whereas in forensic psychology we generally assume that everyone is lying to us. So, we start with that as our premise and then we work backwards. If someone starts telling us the truth, wonderful, but we assume lies are actually the norm. So that’s our big thing. We’re really interested in intentional as well as accidental lies.

You’ve also got to know which questions to ask and that requires thinking and planning, long before the interview actually begins. Psychology is a really exciting subject. It’s got a lot of real-world applications and putting it into the context of crime and investigations is a really good example of this. You can improve what you actually do on a day-to-day basis. We can change the way in which we interact with people, we can change the way that you gather evidence. We can change the way that you process evidence, and we will change the way in which you think about what you’re actually doing. So, it’s for people who really want to improve their skills in investigations.

We’re pulling together some of the top forensic psychologists from around the world – leading experts who are going to be giving guest lectures. Students will actually get to learn from some of the very best leading minds.

One of the great advantages we have is that we’re very applied. We take the ‘applied’ in applied forensic psychology very seriously. That’s why the course concludes with a three-day workshop around interrogating suspects in real interview conditions in interview rooms used for training purposes by Queensland Police. This involves mock interrogations with actors playing the part of suspects. Students will do an interrogation, including the planning and the preparation. We’ve got experienced actors in interview roles familiar with the ways in which they can respond to different types of questioning. We show them how to actually twist and turn information and so they can lead the interviewer down a particular path if they want to. It adds a whole layer of realism, actually sitting in a real interview room with a tape recorder rolling and a video camera pointing down at you. Knowing that other people are going to be watching your interview afterwards changes the dynamics of it all. It’s no longer something very theoretical.

It’s always been assumed that police officers and others pick up interviewing skills by watching other people and that you can’t teach these sorts of skills. It’s only when you see the large number of cases where innocent people have been sent to prison sometimes for long periods of time that you realise that the consequences of a bad interview. Applied Forensic Psychology is a science. We now actually have a science of interviewing witnesses and we’re developing a science of interviewing suspects. We’re interested in changing the way that police officers interview witnesses and suspects, but we also want to help psychologists and anyone else who has to do interviews in the criminal justice system where evidence is required and the information from people must be accurate. If they are lying, we need to be able to identify when they’re lying.