In the context of mental health treatment, suggestibility refers to a client’s vulnerability to accepting information provided by a third party as true, regardless of its veracity. This can result in the client providing inaccurate guesses or statements in a verbal, nonverbal or narrative format. Influenced by a range of individual, psychosocial and contextual factors, the client may be convinced that events unfolded differently than they actually did or that events that never took place actually occurred.
Such behavior is often encountered when clients are uncertain about what happened or what is true, lack confidence in their own memories or ability to understand, or are unable to discriminate between what is real and what is not. As such, suggestibility can profoundly limit a client’s capacity to navigate the various stages of the mental health system.
Suggestibility is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that mental health treatment specialists rarely take into consideration, largely because of the lack of research on it and the limited availability of training opportunities on the topic specifically tailored for these professionals. The research that has been conducted is largely circumscribed to the fields of criminal justice, forensics and the law, where it is well-established that clients who are more suggestible are more likely to provide unreliable eyewitness accounts, spurious alibis or even false confessions to crimes.
Across mental health treatment settings, suggestibility may result in inaccurate diagnoses and ineffective or problematic goal and treatment plans. Given the importance of this topic, we aim to briefly describe the phenomenon of suggestibility within the context of clinical interviewing, assessment and treatment planning. We will also suggest future directions that may assist mental health professionals in addressing this threat to effective clinical decision-making.
Minimizing suggestibility risk in clinical interviews
Certain forms of questioning can increase the likelihood of suggestibility. A suggestive question is one that implies a certain answer, regardless of the client’s actual perspective. Such questions intentionally or unintentionally seek to be persuasive, often by using wording that excludes other possible answers. For example, asking “Where did your father hit you?” instead of “What happened with your father when you got home?” is leading. It promotes a response that would affirm the interviewer’s hypothesis that a physical assault took place and largely excludes the possibility that no altercation occurred.
Questions framed in a negative manner also can have a suggestible impact and are confusing to the client. For example, asking “Didn’t you want to run away?” rather than “Did you want to run away?” is biased in that it may make the client feel guilty for not saying that he or she wanted to run away.
To avoid asking suggestive questions and to lessen the likelihood of receiving false responses from clients, consider using the following strategies:
1) Use open-ended questions while avoiding or minimizing the use of forced-choice and either-or questions.
2) Allow the client to speak in his or her own words, and avoid interrupting the client.
3) Do not assume that you know what the client is trying to say when he or she is unable to fully convey his or her ideas.
4) Accept “I don’t know” responses as potentially valid.
To further illustrate this point of decreasing suggestibility within the context of clinical interviewing, mental health professionals should try to avoid the following approaches when questioning clients:
- Use of closed-ended questions
- Giving an impression that implies the client is providing the wrong answer
- Implying that a certain answer is needed or required
- Leading questions
- Misleading questions
- Negatively worded statements
- Persuading the client to change his or her response
- Pressing the client for a response
- Rapid-fire questioning
- Repeated lines of questioning
- Biased statements
- Subtle prompts
How often questions are asked may also have a suggestive impact. Clients may perceive repeated questioning as a sign that they have not responded in a manner that the counselor deems “correct” or acceptable. Indeed, repetitive lines of questioning in which the client is asked about details of events that either did not happen or that the client does not remember well may result in the unintentional formation of false memories or confabulation (i.e., filling in memory gaps with fabricated memories or experiences).
Asking more general questions about an incident (e.g., “Tell me about what happened at the park”) and then later following up with related questions (e.g., “How often do you go to the park?”) has been found to be a useful method for verifying or clarifying information that might appear to be inconsistent or illogical. Regardless of the questioning style, however, it is advisable to allow clients as much time as they need to respond to questions and to verbally reinforce that they can take their time when answering questions.
In addition to questioning style, the counselor’s nonverbal behaviors, including facial affect, gestural affect and intonation, both before and during the interview, may increase the likelihood of suggestibility and threaten the validity of the information elicited. An example of facial affect could be smiling when a client is providing certain answers but not others. A gestural affect might include leaning forward when a client is providing certain answers but not others. Intonation as a means of nonverbal communication could be providing feedback using upward inflection when a client provides certain answers but downward inflection when he or she provides others. These nonverbal, and often unintended, means of communication are forms of both positive and negative feedback that can shape a person’s responses and increase the risk of suggestibility.
The context of the interview can also affect the likelihood of suggestibility. For example, false reports are more likely if an interview is conducted in a stressful situation (e.g., having an appointment with a therapist immediately following a family conflict). Environmental factors (e.g., a small room without windows or air conditioning on a hot summer afternoon) can also be influential. Providing clients with frequent breaks and avoiding very long clinical interviews is encouraged, when possible. The time between the occurrence of an event and the interview that focuses on the event can also influence suggestibility because clients can become more confident in the accuracy of their false accounts over time. Context within the realm of a clinical interview can include any of the following either prior to and during the actual interviewing process:
- Body language of the counselor
- Duration of eye contact from the counselor
- Environmental distractions (lighting, noise, temperature, etc.)
- Length of the interview
- Pace of the interview
- Tone of the counselor’s voice
Mental health professionals should also take into consideration personality and social characteristics that can influence suggestibility. These may include tendencies toward confabulation, acquiescence, memory distrust, low confidence, desire to please, extreme shyness and social anxiety, avoidant-based coping strategies, fear of negative evaluation, lack of assertiveness, attachment disruptions, fantasy proneness, and psychosocial immaturity (e.g., irresponsibility and temperament). Professionals should also consider cognitive factors, including executive function and memory-related problems (e.g., short-term, long-term and working memory), intellectual limitations, diminished language abilities, and deficits in theory of mind (the ability to understand mental states in oneself and in others).
Preparing for and debriefing from the interview
Understandably, many of these characteristics initially present as invisible, meaning that clients who are highly suggestible may not overtly appear as impaired or vulnerable. Clinicians would benefit from screening for such traits in the initial interview with new clients to determine the prevalence of traits that are likely to contribute to suggestibility. Specific screening tools for suggestibility, such as the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale, can help clinicians in determining a person’s level of suggestibility. This will also assist clinicians in understanding how best to proceed as it relates to interviewing techniques and treatment planning to account for an individual’s level of suggestibility.
False or misleading information can have a negative impact on diagnostic accuracy and treatment outcomes. Accordingly, it is important that mental health professionals not only conduct interviews properly but also prepare for and debrief from them properly. Prior to beginning an interview, counselors are encouraged to review client records (psychological testing, mental health records, criminal justice records, etc.) that may reveal a behavioral pattern of suggestibility and provide a resource for corroborating a client’s statements. Cross-referencing this information with information obtained from collateral informants is also recommended when appropriate. The importance of awareness of one’s self throughout the interview is an important factor for reducing the risk of suggestibility. This includes monitoring one’s verbal and nonverbal communication that could provide feedback to the client regarding potentially desirable versus undesirable responses.
It’s worth noting that some special situations may require clinicians to be more aware of their questioning style and require adaptations and flexibility on the part of the clinician to minimize suggestibility. For instance, those working in correctional and jail settings should consider how suggestibility presents among incarcerated populations, to include those with mental health needs and low intellectual functioning. Substance use is another variable that can have adverse effects on the accuracy of the information obtained during a clinical interview. Furthermore, when interviewing children or adults with neurocognitive and neurodevelopmental disorders, extra precautions may be necessary to reduce the risk of suggestibility. Finally, it is important to note that individuals with exposure to negative life events (e.g., the death of a parent or sibling, exposure to physical violence) may be more susceptible to suggestibility.
Given the importance of collecting accurate information, it is essential that mental health professionals acquaint themselves with the phenomenon of suggestibility. Unfortunately, many mental health providers lack the necessary awareness and training related to the detection and screening of suggestibility among clients.
Mental health professionals should seek to establish routine procedures to better identify clients who are at an increased risk of susceptibility to suggestibility before proceeding with the interviewing process. Such a procedure could include a validated suggestibility screening tool and a checklist of variables that research has found to increase risk of suggestibility among certain mental health treatment populations. We encourage mental health professionals to be aware of the various personality, social and cognitive factors that may influence some clients to be suggestible.
Suggestibility can have a negative impact on the various components of mental health treatment, including intake, screening, assessment, psychological testing, treatment planning, medication compliance, perceived understanding of treatment concepts, and discharge planning. For this reason, we urge mental health professionals to gain an increased awareness and understanding of this complex and multifaceted phenomenon.
One suggested step for moving the field forward is for mental health professionals to engage in self-study and continuing education via in-person and online training courses that focus on the evidence-based assessment and management of suggestibility. It is also important for mental health professionals interested in understanding suggestibility and its implications to review key research findings on at least a quarterly basis and to consult with recognized subject matter experts. Clinical interviews should be conducted through developmentally sensitive and suggestibility-informed approaches that consider the client’s psychiatric, neurocognitive, social and trauma history. By taking such steps, the potential negative impact of suggestibility can be minimized, thus paving the way for positive outcomes.
Jerrod Brown is an assistant professor, program director and lead developer for the master’s degree in human services with an emphasis in forensic behavioral health for Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has also been employed with Pathways Counseling Center for the past 15 years and is the founder and CEO of the American Institute for the Advancement of Forensic Studies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amanda Fenrich obtained her master’s degree in human services with an emphasis in forensic mental health from Concordia University. She is currently completing her doctoral degree in the advanced studies of human behavior from Capella University and is employed as a psychology associate for the Washington State Department of Corrections Sex Offender Treatment and Assessment Program.
Jeffrey Haun is employed as a forensic psychologist for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, where he conducts a variety of forensic evaluations and offers consultation, supervision and training in forensic psychology. He is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct instructor at Concordia University. He is board certified in forensic psychology.
Megan N. Carter is board certified in forensic psychology and has received the designation of fellow from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. She has worked as a forensic evaluator at the Special Commitment Center, Washington state’s sexually violent predator facility, since 2008. She also maintains a small private practice focusing on forensic evaluations and child welfare issues.
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