Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Terror Negotiation

The global war on terror seems to be a growing and inescapable part of modern life. The prevalence, fear, stakes and consequences of which seem to be irrepressibly inflating. Never has there been more awareness of the terror threat than now, predominantly due to the media bombardment propelling the population into incessant panic. This undeniably creates mounting pressure to uncover and prevent all terror threats, before any danger arrives. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done. Government agencies are thus perpetually striving to uncover the most effective techniques to negotiate and interrogate with both terrorists and terror suspects. This work is often carried out in tandem with behavioural scientists and psychologists. But what negotiation tactics are most often adopted in these high-stake scenarios?

Let’s take the case of the Boston bombers, 2013: a case that dominated the media and captured the public’s imagination as the world descended on, what was essentially, a high-stakes wild goose chase, for the terror suspects responsible for bombing the Boston Marathon, with 3 fatalities and over 264 injuries. After suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found, it was the turn of the High Value Interrogation Group to question Mr Tsarnaev. But what is claimed to be their best tool for negotiation? A can of coke. Former FBI agent Bowman (BBC, 2013) states giving the suspect something they want, this could merely be a small gesture, such as a beverage, or more significantly, a reduced sentence later, can significantly increase the likelihood that the negotiation for information will be successful. How? Madrigal, Bowman and McClain (2009) advocate that this approach lends itself to the Four Phase Model of Negotiation. It establishes an initial dialogue between the interrogator and the suspect. This then is likely to catalyze the next stage of building rapport between the two parties. Rapport building has been shown to foster mutual cooperation, especially in face-to-face encounters (Drolet & Morris, 2000). This in turn, strongly determines the corresponding trust built between the two, which is of paramount importance, dictating future negotiations and agreements (Nadler, 2003). When discussions develop, interrogators would have used active listening techniques to pick up cues from the individual. These techniques foster cooperation and helped evoke the confession from the suspect (Miller, 2005).

However, perhaps the greatest technique available to interrogators was merely information. The web of knowledge that emerged about Tsarnaev was incredible – from family members to fellow students. This enabled the government to value the best alternative to negotiated agreement for the suspect. What value could be placed on his confession: both for the government and for himself? For such a significant case, the zone of possible agreement for the government was rather large – they would stop at little else to negotiate for relevant information or a confession. Leverage for negotiation was also created by the information interrogators had on Tsarnaev’s brother (fellow suspect) who had died in the pursuit. This knowledge was of high value to both parties and could be also be used, using basic reciprocity principles or as the FBI name the ‘tit-for-tat’ technique, to exchange information on the brother, for information on the crime.

All of the negotiation techniques combined to elicit a confession from Tsarnaev. Much research evidence suggests that the most effective way to successfully negotiate and obtain information is by a more amicable approach in rapport building. However, amidst the seemingly ceaseless allegations of government and intelligence chiefs using torture to elicit successful negotiations, it is hard to know whether rapport building was the only thing responsible for the confession…

By Mhairi Hay


BBC News Magazine (2013). Boston bombings: How to interrogate a suspected terrorist. Accessed via:

Drolet, A. L., & Morris, M. W. (2000). Rapport in conflict resolution: Accounting for how face-to-face contact fosters mutual cooperation in mixed-motive conflicts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36(1), 26-50.

Madrigal, D. O., Bowman, D. R., & McClain, B. U. (2009). Introducing the four-phase model of negotiation. Journal of Police Crisis Negotiations, 9(2), 119-133.

Miller, L. (2005). Hostage negotiation: Psychological principles and practices. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 7(4), 277-298.

Nadler, J. (2003). Rapport in negotiation and conflict resolution. Marq. L. Rev., 87, 875.

Nierenberg, G. I. (1995). The art of negotiating: Psychological strategies for gaining advantageous bargains. Barnes & Noble Publishing.

Noesner, G. W., & Webster, M. (1997). Crisis intervention: Using active listening skills in negotiations. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 66(8), 13-20.

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