What Is a Cognitive Interview? (With Definition and Tips)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 2 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Cognitive interviews enable interviewers to provide specific conditions and context that help the interviewee recall memories efficiently and accurately. This interview method helps interviewers ask fewer questions. Knowing the process behind the method can help elicit highly detailed answers that provide insights into the suitability of a candidate. In this article, we look into cognitive interviews, browse different techniques and share different tips and sample interviews to learn from.

What is a cognitive interview?

A cognitive interview is an interviewing method where the interviewer asks questions to elicit accurate and detailed answers. In many instances, the interviewer typically uses open-ended questions to get an interviewee to describe their memory by reliving the experience. This may involve prompting the interviewee to focus on specific details and experiences to recall the information more accurately. This interview method is common in law enforcement as personnel may interview eyewitnesses to reconstruct a case.

A hiring manager may use it to learn about a candidate's knowledge of specific topics and their ability to recall and apply it in a situation. Such interviews may last longer than a regular one and can provide valuable insight into a candidate's abilities, skills and experiences.

What are the different interviewing techniques?

Below are the different techniques used for this interview method:

Reinstate personal or environmental contexts

An interviewer helps an interviewee answer questions accurately by setting a context that enables them to visualise the experience more clearly. This involves asking the interviewee to revisit their experience by visualising the events as they unfold and the environment around them, such as lighting, people, conversations and other objects that are a part of the environment. After creating the context, the interviewer can then ask interviewees to recall events and activities that have taken place by going through the memory sequentially.

Recall information in sequence

This method usually results in the participant recalling a sequence of events as they occurred. The interviewee may describe events in detail from beginning to end with sequential accuracy. The interviewee can reconstruct each sequence by visualising or recreating the event to recall details that they may have forgotten otherwise.

Share every detail

Interviewers may prompt the interviewees with further questions to understand the details further, if necessary. They do so by providing cues and prompting questions that ask the interviewee to focus on the details more deeply and to describe them further. In some instances, an interviewee may have forgotten a few details when initially describing an event. This interview method helps them focus on relevant details, such as the position of objects or missing items that may have escaped their attention.

Multi-perspective reporting and supplementary techniques

Another method that interviewers may use to elicit information is asking the interviewee to consider another perspective of the event. For example, if an interviewee is an eyewitness to an accident, the interviewer may ask them to describe the event from the victim's point of view. Supplementary techniques involve asking the interviewee questions regarding specific items, such as whether the person in question reminds them of someone they know or recalling words used in a conversation.

The stages of the interview

Below are the stages of this interview method:


Before the interview begins, the interviewer greets the interviewee and introduces themselves before explaining the purpose and reasons for this interview method. They explain the steps and the kind of questions they may ask. This helps an interviewee understand the context of the interview and prepare for it. Interviewers may address the interviewees' questions or doubts regarding the interview process before starting the interview.

Build a rapport

It's a good idea to build a rapport with the interviewee to help them feel comfortable during the process. Ensuring that the interviewee feels relaxed can help them be forthcoming and accurate with their answers. They may consider talking about common topics of interest beyond the professional space, such as culture, sports and social activities. Displaying an interest in an interviewees' extracurricular pursuits can also reveal insightful information about themselves regarding their personality, hobbies, skills and other interests.

Ask the interviewee open-ended questions

Here, open-ended questions revolve around the recall of specific details. The interviewer may then ask prompting questions or provide cues to focus on certain descriptions of relevance. The interviewer may also ask questions to clarify and cross-check details in the interviewees' descriptions. The interviewer aims to ask questions that minimise their interaction and get the interviewee to talk in detail.

Concluding the interview

The interviewer guides the length and pace of the interview to determine where to conclude the interview. As you finish up the interview, you can thank the interviewee for their time and show your appreciation for their efforts in their conversation with you. Before they leave, an interviewer may invite questions, add further information or clarify any doubts they may have regarding the interview process or questions.

Related: Interviewing Skills to Ace a Job Interview

Tips to help you prepare for a cognitive interview

Consider the following tips to prepare for this type of interview:

  • Be comfortable. Being comfortable can help you focus on answering the interviewer's questions. Focus on slowing down your breathing and get into an environment with low levels of noise to help you relax and remain comfortable.

  • Practise recalling from memory. This interview method doesn't rely on asking you to provide right or wrong answers. It wants you to focus on being able to recall events from memory, so practise recalling a memory and focusing on as many details as possible within it.

  • Rehearse with a friend. You may consider practising with a friend or someone you trust in a comfortable environment. This can help simulate the interview process and recreate what you can expect in the actual interview.

  • Create a list of notable events. Interviewers may ask you to recall events and experiences from your past to get to know you better. Make a list of notable events and experiences to provide information that highlights your skills and improves your memory recall abilities.

Related: How to Prepare for an Interview

Example interview questions

Consider the following sample questions to guide you in preparing for an interview:

Describe an instance of working with a difficult co-worker and what you did to overcome it

The interviewer wants to learn about your ability to resolve conflicts and problems with others in the workplace. Think of a situation or incident where you resolved differences with a difficult co-worker. Use the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action and Result) to help you be effective in your response.

Example answer: "I once worked with somebody who had difficulties in completing his portion of a project by the deadline. It was a demanding project and his delays caused the rest of the team and I to support him while completing our work. I decided to talk to him one day over lunch and understand the problem. He stated that he was taking on more responsibilities than he was able to handle and I advised him to speak to our supervisor and request a readjustment of his work expectations."

Related: How to Use the STAR Interview Method (With Example)

Tell me about a time you handled a client who wasn't happy with your product or service

When an interviewer asks this question, typically for sales roles, they seek to understand your dedication to your role, the steps you take to achieve your goals and your ability to strategise and communicate. For this question, consider a situation with a dissatisfied client. Explain what the problem was and how you approached and resolved the matter.

Example answer: "As we were approaching the deadline for filing taxes, I was working with a client's finance department to collate all the necessary documents to file their taxes through our portal. The website portal was stalling due to uploading large amounts of data which caused the company's owner to get upset with the process. I met with him the next day to explain the problem. I listened to him and acknowledged the concerns he raised regarding a late submission.

I maintained open body language and eye contact throughout my explanation. I calmly explained what went wrong and how we were actively fixing the issue. I also apologised for the inconvenience he and his company experienced, took full responsibility to fix the issue at the earliest opportunity and personally provided updates directly to him. We were successfully able to complete the process in time and the company owner remains one of our biggest and most satisfied clients today."

What's your favourite memory at work?

This question enables an interviewer to learn about your motivation and the skills unique to your candidacy. Create a list of events that had a significant impact on your career and use them to demonstrate your abilities. You may also explain the positive impact you created at your workplace for your co-workers.

Example answer: "My favourite memory from work was when I presented our project results to the company's board of directors. My supervisor and his manager notified me that the board wanted a presentation of the results of our project. I worked closely with my team for over a month preparing the slides and collecting and verifying information, while also rehearsing my presentation speech and creating a list of potential questions the board members may ask. Despite my nervousness, the board was happy with my presentation and their questions coincided with the questions I anticipated."

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