Eliciting information in intelligence interviews through priming: an examination of underlying mechanisms
Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis
An emerging body of research in human intelligence interviewing suggests that subtle influence tactics, such as priming, could be used to increase informants’ disclosure of sensitive information. However, the mechanisms that elicit such subtle influences on disclosure are not fully understood. To contribute to this field of research, the present thesis sought to map out when and how priming tactics impact information disclosure. The work was based on a synthesis of current theoretical perspectives that generally explain how primes affect behavior. It was proposed that priming helpfulness motivations would facilitate information disclosure because previous research findings have indicated that activating individuals’ helpfulness motivations increase their cooperation in various domains. In seven experiments (and two pilot tests) consisting of 1, 347 participants, the underlying mechanisms of helpfulness priming and the processes that elicit the potential influence of helpfulness priming on disclosure were examined. The first part of the thesis (i.e., Part 1), which included five experiments, investigated the theoretical proposition that behavioral assimilation to helpfulness priming occurs because a helpfulness prime increases cognitive accessibility to helpfulness-related content, which in turn mediates the impact of the prime on helping behavior (Experiments 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5). In addition, the role of the potential moderators, perspective taking (Experiments 1 and 2) and suitability affordances (Experiment 5), was investigated. The results indicated that helpfulness priming reliably increases helpfulness accessibility. However, no main effects of priming on behavior, nor interactions between priming and any of the moderators, emerged. Mediation analyses results were consistent with the hypothesis that helpfulness priming indirectly increases helping behavior by heightening helpfulness accessibility, but only in two of the five experiments, where participants subjectively perceived more suitable or relevant affordance to enact helpfulness. Taken together, the results of Part I suggested that variability in helpfulness accessibility and suitable affordances may promote the enactment of helping behavior. These findings were extended to an intelligence interview context (Part 2: Experiments 6 and 7) to explore the underlying mechanisms that engender the potential influence of helpfulness priming on information disclosure. Participants assumed the role of an informant with information about an upcoming mock terror attack. Subsequently, an interviewer solicited information about the attack using an interview style that displayed either high (helpfulness-focused) or low (control) fit with helpfulness. Before the interview, in a seemingly unrelated experiment, half of the participants were primed with helpfulness-related content and the other half were not primed. After the priming, the cognitive helpfulness accessibility of all the participants was assessed. Experiment 6 explored the proposition that a helpfulness-focused interview style, which draws on interviewees’ primed helpfulness accessibility, would function as a high-suitability affordance and thus promote disclosure. Unexpectedly, the results revealed that the helpfulness-focused interview style decreased disclosure when helpfulness accessibility was low. Experiment 7, which drew on the findings of Experiment 6, examined the theoretical proposition that consistency between interviewees’ primed helpfulness dispositions and an interviewer’s (helpfulness-focused) interpersonal approach when soliciting information would facilitate disclosure. Providing some support for the proposition, the results indicated that helpfulness priming increased disclosure when the helpfulness-focused approach was used but not when the control approach was used. In all, regarding the underlying processes of information elicitation using priming tactics, this thesis suggests that implementing an interview style that does not match an interviewee’s primed dispositions could counteract the goal of increasing disclosure. The findings also hint at the possibility that an interview approach that complements an interviewee’s primed dispositions may work in concert with the previous priming to increase disclosure.
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