Leading the witness

Implications of Elizabeth Loftus’s research
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In a series of classic studies, Elizabeth Loftus (rated the most eminent female psychologist of the 20th Century by the American Psychological Association) and her colleagues demonstrated just how vulnerable witnesses are to leading questions. The results were summarized in Use Your Head: The inside track on the way we think by Daniel Freeman and Jason Freeman (John Murray, London, 2010, pp. 67-68, my italics):

For example a video tape of a car crash was shown to several groups of people. When members of one group were asked, ‘How fast were the cars going when they collided with each other?’, their average response was 31.8 miles per hour. A different group were asked, ‘How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’. These participants reckoned the cars were travelling a full 9 miles an hour faster at 40.8 miles per hour. Each group’s estimate of the cars’ speed was heavily influenced by the particular verb used in the question.

Similarly, when the questioners mentioned a stop sign, many of the participants remembered seeing it – even though no such sign had appeared in the video. Asking ‘Did you see the broken headlight?’ was much more likely to elicit an affirmative from the participants than the more tentative ‘Did you see a broken headlight?’. And groups who’d heard the incident described as a ‘smash’ were far more inclined to agree that they’d seen broken glass than those for whom the incident had been described in less loaded terminology (again, there was no broken glass).

Bear in mind that Loftus’s experiments were carried out in a psychological laboratory. If people are so suggestible in a lab, one can only imagine how they are likely to perform in the intense atmosphere of a courtroom [or a police interview]. Moreover, many eye witnesses manage just a fleeting glimpse of an incident – it’s not something they were expecting, after all. And where a weapon was used in a crime, it’s often this feature of the incident that – for understandable reasons – drew most of their attention. (This tendency is known as ‘weapon focus’.)

This is not to suggest that eyewitness accounts are inherently unreliable – indeed, some studies show that people are often very good at remembering aspects of an incident that they see very clearly and face on. What they tend to be less proficient at is recalling peripheral details (a face seen in profile, for example, or an accomplice standing off to one side). And sometimes, of course, it’s these peripheral elements that are the most important to the outcome of a case.

These experiments further confirm that even a single word can make a big difference to how people recall events, reason and make decisions (see my blog Metaphors we think with for more scientific evidence).

While these experiments were based on observing ‘external’ events, I suspect that the principles equally apply, if not more so, to ‘internal’ events. This is why we recommend facilitators stay ultra clean when a client is attending to experiences:

  • inside their private metaphorical world
  • inside their body
  • core to them (e.g related identity and who they are)
  • related to much younger, child-like metaphors
  • triggered by abuse or trauma
  • of a spiritual or religious nature
  • that are vague or ill-formed senses.

There is also much to be learned from the different ways we respond to the center and the periphery of our attention. At times it seems like there is a parallel between ‘weapon focus’ and ‘problem focus’. People can become hypnotised by their problems, or to use a different metaphor, magnetically pulled to focus on them.

On the other hand, a person may only “manage just a fleeting glimpse” of a symbol on the periphery of their landscape or a change if is small and unexpected.

We often say in our trainings that it’s more important where a question directs a person’s attention than which question is asked. We add that how long the person pays attention to any one aspect of their landscape is also crucial. Hence participants who are facilitating someone to develop a metaphor landscape will often hear us whisper in their ear “stay there, stay there”. This is our way of giving coaching in the moment and guiding the facilitator to increase what David Grove called “the dwell time”. That is, to attend to one aspect for longer, often much longer, than the person usually does.

One of the great values of Symbolic Modelling is that we can facilitate a person to pay attention to those fleeting glimpses and peripheral details in a clean and naturalistic way. The primary clean question for doing this is:

And when [symbol/event 1], what happens to [symbol/event 2]?

David Grove occasionally used this question in his early ‘child within’ phase (up to the early 1990s) but not very often. We refer to this ‘specialised’ question several times in Metaphors in Mind (see the index on page 311). However, in the last few years Penny Tompkins and I have been trying to give this question more  exposure. In our current trainings we have upgraded it from ‘specialised’ to join the exulted ranks of the ‘basic’ clean questions.

‘And when …, what happens to …?’ is such a versatile question. It can be used for example to invite a person to:

Be simultaneously aware of aspects of their inner world that are separated in space – and time – and thereby widening the field of perception to include more of the person’s experience (e.g. in Stage 3 of Symbolic Modelling Lite, Developing a Desired Outcome Landscape).

Consider a relationship between two aspects of a landscape (an attribute, symbol, relationship, metaphor, pattern, etc.). If both aspects are within the current perceptual event this question tends to bring forth causal or contingent relationships. Otherwise it invites the awareness of relationships across space and over time (e.g. in Stage 4 of Symbolic Modelling Lite, Exploring the Effects of a Desired Outcome Landscape).

Discover what happens in one part of a landscape when there has been a change in another part (e.g. in Stage 5 of Symbolic Modelling Lite, Maturing Changes).

I’ve also used ‘And when …, what happens to …?’ to good effect when working with couples and in groups to invite those present to consider their response when one person does or says something.

Penny Tompkins and I eventually ran a Developing Group workshop (6 May 2017) on this question:

The ‘When … what happens to …?’ Question

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