The aim of the Centre of Competence is to increase the knowledge about psychology and law in society in general, to provide adult training to practitioners from different educational background, and in collaboration with the laboratory of experimental psychology to conduct research uniting the fields of psychology and law.


Members from the The Centre of Excellence in Behavioural and Neural Sciences:

Affiliated members:

  • Prof. Pekka Santtila from New York University in Shanghai. Read more.
  • Junior researcher Annegrete Palu from University of Tartu. Read more.

Our main activities

Our main activities are following.

  1. To conduct research in two broad field of psychology and law. First, as in the laboratory in experimental psychology there is equipment necessary to conduct experiments using eyetracker (Tobii X120), then it creates possibilities to conduct research in the fields of perception and memory regarding psychology and law. We are interested in examining eyewitness identification accuracy of multiple perpetrators. Second, we aim to do research in the field of investigative interviewing emphasizing methods to increase the quality of such interviews using and enhancing a specific software. If the quality of investigative interviews increase then it creates also opportunities for the criminal justice system to collect more credible evidence. Also we integrate our research interests with other disciplines within The Centre of Excellence in Behavioural and Neural Sciences. 
  2. To popularize legal psychology (by publishing popular science articles and papers but also via crossmedia channels).

  3. To participate with different domestic and international partners for initiating new research project and applying funding to the projects.

  4. To disseminate relevant and credible information from the field of legal psychology to different groups of specialists and also to provide adult trainings in legal psychology for the interested counterparts (for example, best practices in investigative interviewing).



Using avatars in investigative interview trainings increases the proportion of recommended questions by 23% in real child interviews

Previous research has demonstrated that repeated feedback in simulated investigative interviews with computerized child avatars (a software called Empowering Interview Training) improves the quality of interviews conducted with real children. It is not known whether this type of training would improve the quality of investigative interviews with actual child victims and witnesses. We published a paper in Frontiers in Psychology where 22 police officers from Estonia participated in a study where half of them received feedback during four simulated interviews whereas the other half received no feedback during four such interviews followed by another four interviews after which they also received feedback. Transcripts of the real interviews with actual child victims and witnesses before and after the training were coded. In avatar training, the proportion of recommended questions were correlated with the number of correct details in avatars’ answers. In real interviews, the proportion of recommended questions increased by 23% comparing interviews before EIT training to post-EIT training.

How investigative interviewers could be trained?

Witness statements are, in judicial practice, irreplaceable pieces of evidence in criminal proceedings. Still, interviewing both child and adult witnesses, though crucial, remains a difficult skill. We published an overview paper in Juridica International where we begin by providing an overview of appropriate investigative interviewing techniques for interviews of child and adult witnesses. We continue by discussing training as there is more literature about interviewing child witnesses and training those investigators who conduct these interviews. We make references to that child-witness literature where doing so is appropriate and necessary, both for its domain-specific relevance and – since there are similarities in investigative interviews of child and adult witnesses – for the light it sheds more broadly. Finally, we discuss particular ways in which investigators can be trained to increase and maintain the quality of interviews.

What is known Estonian novices’ investigative interviewing skills of asylum seekers?

In the paper published in Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling we aimed to replicate a previous vignette study among novice Estonian police cadets to map their interviewing skills. Sixty-one police cadets from the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences were asked to respond to one of four vignettes that contained fictitious asylum narratives. Two of the vignettes contained no evidence for the origin of the asylum seeker, and the other two contained no evidence for the claim of persecution. The cadets were asked to formulate five questions that would help them to assess the credibility of the applicant's claim. We coded the style, type, and content of the questions. Our analyses showed that, in line with best practice, the cadets mainly formulated open questions in an information-gathering style. A thematic analysis revealed that when a claim about origin was assessed, cadets typically formulated questions about life in the country of origin, identity documents, and the flight to Europe. When assessing a persecution claim, in contrast, they mostly formulated case-specific questions.

Professional experience does not necessarily indicate a good knowledge

Kristjan Kask published a survey in Proceedings of the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences where he was interested in Estonian professionals’ attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about issues regarding child sexual abuse. The aim of the survey was to investigate professionals’ attitudes and beliefs about child sexual abuse as well as their knowledge about children’s memory and suggestibility. The sample of 40 participants filled in the Child Sexual Abuse Attitude and Belief Scale and tried to predict children’s memory and suggestibility performance in specific situations. Self-assessment ratings were associated with previous child sexual abuse and forensic interviewing training experience. However, professional experience was not associated with the knowledge of CSA nor with the ability to predict children’s memory and suggestibility performance in specific situations. The findings suggest that professional experience does not necessarily indicate a good knowledge in CSA issues among professionals.

What is the relationship between visual perception and word meaning structure?

Visuospatial ability is often considered a distinct nonverbal cognitive function. However, previous studies have suggested that visuospatial abilities are semiotically mediated, and therefore, they cannot be considered completely nonverbal. These studies have shown empirically and theoretically that, for example, higher visuospatial abilities such as visual discrimination and mental rotation are semiotically mediated. Junior research Valeri Murnikov conducted a study published in Proceedings of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. In this explorative study, he examined the relationship between word meaning structure and visual perception. This study relied on the results of two tasks obtained from a larger test battery measuring different aspects of speech and cognition. The first task measured visual perception and the ability to inhibit the distracting stimuli; in the second task, we measured the individualsʼ dominant conceptual thought. The sample consisted of 58 native
Estonian speakers. The results indicated three different behavioural patterns while solving visualperceptual tasks. Two of the behavioural patterns relied on verbalization during the process of task solving. The participants who used verbalization had less dominant logical conceptual thought. Theoretically, verbalization suggests that participants find a given task cognitively demanding. The fact that the majority of the participants verbalized the process in connection with word meaning structure supports the idea that visuospatial abilities are not totally nonverbal, but rather semiotically mediated.

What is the effect of various focal length photographs on eyewitness identification accuracy?

A key factor that has rarely been investigated regarding the technical details of photographs in eyewitness identification research is focal length. Focal length can be defined as the distance between the camera lens and the camera sensor, providing variance in the viewing angle and magnification of objects in the frame. We published a study in the Proceedings of the Estonian Academy of Sciences to examine the effect of various focal length photographs on eyewitness identification accuracy. Ninety adult participants watched a video of a mock theft, after which they were randomly shown a simultaneous six-person target-present lineup of photographs using a 24mm, 50mm or 100mm focal length. The participants who viewed photographs taken with either a 100mm or 50mm focal length identified the suspect more often than those who viewed photographs taken with a 24mm focal length. Based on these findings, we suggest that the standard focal length of photographs used for the purpose of eyewitness identification should always be between 50 mm and 100 mm.

What influences the identification accuracy of multiple perpetrators?

Although many crimes involve multiple perpetrators, most eyewitness studies examine identification accuracy within the context of a single perpetrator. Prior research has indicated that stronger memory traces and lower cognitive load result in more accurate perpetrator identifications. We published in the Proceedings of the Estonian Academy of Sciences a study where 180 participants were shown a video of a simulated theft that involved two perpetrators. Afterwards, participants were randomly shown two lineups, each with a sixperson simultaneous lineup. In one group (n = 60), the participant selected which lineup to view first; in the other groups, the administrator selected which lineup to view first. When the administrator chose the viewing order, half of the participants (n = 60) were aware of which lineup corresponded to which perpetrator and half (n = 60) were not. The participants who selected which lineup to view first correctly rejected targetabsent lineups more often (65%) than those who did not know which lineup corresponded to which perpetrator (45%). There were no differences between the participants who selected which lineup to view first and those who could not choose the order but were aware which lineup corresponded to which perpetrator. In conclusion, being aware of which lineup corresponds to which perpetrator seems to be an important factor associated with eyewitnesses’ cognitive load.

We published a study about transfer of simulated interview training effects into interviews with children exposed to a mock event

The researchers from Abo Akademi University Finland have constructed a software called EIT (Empowering Interviewing Training) which helps to simulate investigative interviews with sexually abused children using avatars. The software was translated and adapted into Estonian and now we published in Nordic Psychology a study aiming to find out whether participating in avatar interview simulation improves the quality of recommended questions (i.e., free recall and open-ended questions) in interviewing real children exposed to a mock event.

Two experiments were conducted, one among Italian psychologists (Study 1) and the other among Estonian psychology students (Study 2). In both studies, half of the participants received no feedback (control group) while the other half received feedback (experimental group) on their performance during repeated interviews with avatars. Each participant then interviewed two 4-6 year old children who had each witnessed a different mock event without any feedback being provided. In both studies, interview quality improved in the feedback (vs. control) group during the training session with avatars.

The analyses of transfer effects showed that, compared to controls, interview quality was better in the experimental group. More recommended questions were used in both studies. Although the two studies did not show statistically significant training effects for all investigated variables, we conclude that interview quality can be improved using avatar training and that there is transfer into actual interviews with children at least in the use of recommended questions.

Do conceptual thinking and age predict correct information in children’s recollections?

Our researchers published a study in Frontiers in Psychology: Developmental Psychology to replicate the results of a previously published pilot study. The aim of the study was to examine whether previous results can be replicated by using different methodology in
perceiving a mock event. Thus, we were interested in the relationship between age, development of conceptual thinking, and responses to free recall, suggestive and specific option-posing questions in children and adults. Seven, 10 and 13-year-old children and adults took part in an experiment in which they first participated in a live staged event, then, a week later, were interviewed about the event and tested using the Word Meaning Structure Test.

Age and level of conceptual thinking were positively correlated in children. Compared to age, conceptual thinking ability better predicted children's accurate free recall and inaccurate responses to specific option-posing questions, but not inaccurate responses to suggestive questions. We can conclude that besides age, the level of children’s conceptual thinking is an important variable that should be taken into account when conducting investigative interviews with children.

In the Estonian version of this webpage, there are links to some materials available only in Estonian.