The Think like a Detective Blog

Weekly tips and tricks that show you how to Think Like a Detective to uncover better insights—from a REAL-LIFE detective turned market detective.

Don't Get False Confessions From Customer Interviews

Jan 06, 2024

The year is 1992.

Beverly Monroe, a single mother of three children, is accused of murder.

Monroe discovered her boyfriend’s body at his home, sitting on his couch, with a bullet wound to his forehead. A revolver was found next to his body.

All of the evidence pointed to a suicide, but detective Dave Riley believed differently — he thought Monroe had shot her boyfriend.

So, despite the evidence, Riley accused Monroe of being involved in her boyfriend’s death. Monroe emphatically denied involvement. However, Riley was relentless. Using coercive and illegal tactics during the interrogation that U.S. District Court Judge Richard L. Williams later called “deceitful and manipulative,” Riley obtained a confession.

But, the facts and evidence told a different story. Monroe didn’t kill her boyfriend.

So why would Monroe confess to a crime she didn’t commit?

The interrogation led to a false confession.

Through a combination of lies and manipulation, Riley had convinced Monroe to believe she had played a role in her boyfriend’s death, but it was so traumatic that she had erased it from her memory. Ultimately, Monroe had signed a statement that affirmed Riley’s theory, even though she was miles away from her boyfriend’s house when he died.

Later, Monroe tried to recant her statement, but to no avail; she was convicted of murder and spent 11 years in prison. She was exonerated in 2003.

Stop and think about that for a moment.

Eleven. Years. Lost.

All because Monroe confessed to a crime she didn’t commit.

If Monroe could confess to something that wasn’t true, i.e., lie when the stakes were so high, could somebody be compelled to lie when the stakes were lower?

The answer is yes.

But first, how could this happen?

Interrogation is only effective if you have the facts.

Every good investigation begins by gathering facts.

“Just the Facts.” — Joe Friday

Facts are gathered in many ways: observation, forensics, data analysis, and interviews, to name a few. All of these methods are about gathering data to illuminate the truth.

Facts should always drive an investigation.

Once the facts are established and the investigator knows what happened, then, and only then, it is time to interrogate a suspect.

The fundamental reasons for this are:

  • Interviews are focused on gathering information, i.e., who, what, when, where, why, and how;
  • Interrogations are about eliciting an admission of guilt or a confession from a person believed to be guilty. That belief should be predicated on facts and evidence.

Investigations should be focused on finding “true positives” and “true negatives.”

In the criminal justice system, a “true positive” exists when a person commits a crime and is ultimately convicted of the crime. A “true negative exists” when a person does not commit a crime and is not convicted.

Notice that I didn't say investigations are about seeking a conviction; they are about finding the truth.

However, what happens when things go awry?

The worst-case scenario is when we get a “false positive,” i.e., when a person does not commit a crime and gets convicted. Our system of criminal jurisprudence is grounded in the theory that it is, "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. (Blackstone’s Ratio). 

The second-worst-case scenario is getting a “false negative,” i.e., when a person commits a crime but isn’t convicted.

Think about this for a minute —if the goal of an investigation is to illuminate the truth, then interrogation before obtaining facts is like shooting at a target in a pitch-black environment and expecting to hit a bullseye. It might happen sometimes, but it is a function of luck.

At this point, you might be asking, what do interviews and interrogation have to do with customer interviews?

Both processes should be focused on getting the same thing — the truth.

This begs the question, are you interviewing to discover the truth or to confirm what you believe to be true (confirmation bias)?

Most companies interrogate their customers before getting the facts.

The biggest enemy of the truth in business lies within the business's four walls. The often-held belief is that “we know everything there is to know about our customers” and “we need to confirm our hypothesis.” The former is dangerous thinking that creates blind spots; the latter is confirmation bias.

The threat of going into customer conversations knowing exactly what you want customers to say is that you will lead the customer to make an admission or confession — not to obtain the facts.

And by doing this, businesses are putting the cart before the horse.

If people will confess to crimes they didn’t commit, even at the risk of spending decades in prison, they most certainly will:

  • Confess to liking a product they don’t like; 
  • Telling you they would spend money on a product that they wouldn’t;
  • And otherwise, lie to you.

To be clear, people don’t necessarily lie on purpose; there might not be anything Machiavellian behind it.


  • They lie to remain within cultural norms
  • They lie to protect your feelings
  • They lie to tell you what you want to hear
  • They lie to extricate themselves from having to explain why they don’t like something

“Everybody lies.” — Gregory House, M.D.

Or, they legitimately think they are telling you the truth but would behave differently in a real-life scenario. This is the difference between stated preferences and revealed preferences. People will answer aspirationally, i.e., how they would want to behave, not how they would actually behave.

As you can imagine, the clear and present danger here is that customers are “confessing” to things that aren’t empirically true — and businesses are making decisions on this faulty data.

There are sure-fire ways to get false confessions from your customers.

While you can’t completely eliminate inadvertent (or advertent) dishonesty when gathering information from your customers, you can do things to mitigate the risk. Conversely, there are things you can do to make it more likely to get a “false confession” from your customers — you can ask the wrong questions, avoid asking the hard questions, and you can present your baby to your customers and expect them to call it ugly.

You can get a false confession by asking the wrong questions.

You shouldn’t ask certain questions; they are akin to interrogating your customers. Here are a few of them and what you can do instead:

Q: “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

This seems to be a crowd favorite and a horrible question. You are “telegraphing” that you think it’s a good idea and trying to gain acceptance from somebody else. You are begging for a confession here.

If you want to know if your idea is good, get someone to spend money or time on it. Only the market can truly answer the question. The platinum standard is real people, spending real money (or time), in real-world conditions.

Q: Would you buy…?

This is a hypothetical question. Don’t ask hypotheticals. The answer might make you feel great, but it isn’t grounded in anything but aspirations and beliefs. People are horrible at predicting what they might do. Again, you are telegraphing your position and asking someone to agree.

Instead, ask questions about what they currently use to solve their problem.

Q: How much would you pay for…?

Another hypothetical. People have no idea what they would pay.

You aren’t gathering facts when asking these questions; you are seeking a response that fits what you think it should be, i.e., interrogating your customers.

Instead, inquire about what they are purchasing to solve the problem.

You can get a false confession by avoiding the hard questions.

If at least one question doesn’t make you uncomfortable, i.e., the answer could potentially change the course of your business, then you are getting a de facto false confession. In this case, the confession comes in the form of letting your assumptions be the voice of the customer.

Your assumptions are just that — YOUR assumptions. They are not facts. And they most certainly aren’t your customer's reality.

You can get a false confession by presenting your baby and expecting people to call it ugly.

Have you ever seen an ugly baby? How about an ugly puppy? Would you ever tell the baby’s mother the child is ugly? How about the dog owner? Most likely not. First, some social norms would probably hold you back. Second, it isn’t polite, and although there are assholes in the world, most people have manners.

Don’t ask people if they think your idea is good. The idea is your baby, and they most likely aren’t going to tell you it is ugly.

If you want the truth — good or bad — you must seek it deliberately and indiscriminately.

The pathway to the truth begins with customer interviews, not with interrogation.

While the truth can be painful, in business, it is necessary.

And despite what Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, i.e., “You can’t handle the truth," you can —and must—handle the truth.

Lucky for you, you can stop your customers from making false confessions and help them speak their truth. By doing so, you are doing both them and you a service.

If only someone had done that for Monroe.

Inside the mind of a detective.

Weekly tips and tricks that show you how to Think Like a Detective to uncover better insights—from a REAL-LIFE detective turned market detective.