It’s difficult to comprehend why someone would lie about committing a crime they didn’t commit — yet its more common than you may initially realise. It is so common, in fact, that those false confessions are sparking the interest of criminal-justice researchers and legal academics alike. University of Virginia law professor and author of Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, studied over 250 criminal cases later cleared by DNA evidence. He found that at least 40 cases of the wrongfully convicted involved people who gave false confessions. It’s also a tough business to reverse a confession — in the court of law, a confession is like the royal flush of all evidence: it trumps everything (even DNA evidence). So precisely what would cause a guiltless person to confess to something they didn’t do?
We’ve put together some of the most probably explanations from this seemingly inexplicable behaviour. It involves dark turns into the human psyche to try and piece together why this happens, and we’ve identified four here.
The little voice inside and a tendency to confess.
Researchers have uncovered that we have a rather surprising tendency: fessing up to made-up wrongdoings. John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York psychology professors, Dr. Saul Kassin and Dr. Jennifer Perillo, conducted a study which involved 71 university students who were told they would be assessed for their reaction times. Sitting in front of computers, the students were to hit specific keys as soon as they heard the researcher say them out load.
The experimenter – who secretly knew the purpose of the study – told the students that there was something wrong with the ALT key. Pressing it would result in loss of all experimental data and crash the computer. The truth was, the computer was set up to crash within a minute into the test. The administrator pretended to be very upset when “realising” all the data had been lost. He subsequently asked each student if they pressed the ALT key and asked each participant to sign a confession. Video footage later showed only person actually hit the ALT key by mistake.
Despite this fact, the study found that nearly half (48%) of the innocent test-takers eventually confessed. They were so taken aback and shocked by the stressful situation that they essentially took responsibility for something they had not done.
Swinging lights and interrogation techniques.
Several experiments show that the number of innocent confessors’ rises alarmingly when researchers use certain interrogation techniques. Dr Kassin and Dr Perillo organised a similar computer-crash test. This time, another person in the room lies by insisting they witnessed the participant press the forbidden key. Adding this false claim almost doubled the amount of innocent students signing confessions (about 94%). The bluffing technique is a powerful psychological tool.
Studies in the past few years has found that giving inaccurate information this way can change a person’s perception, memories, beliefs and even behaviour. In real police interrogation rooms, an investigator may choose to use ‘false evidence’ – pretending to have evidence that proves the person is guilty to urge him to fess up. This interrogation technique is banned in Britain but still allowed in parts of the US.
Young, old, ill or vulnerable?
Being young or mentally unfit may be even more vulnerable to the already psychologically-taxing experience of interrogation. They often happen in solitary rooms, which make a suspect more anxious to escape. Other times an interrogator may act sympathetic and try to morally justify the crime, with the intention of making the suspect believe they’ll be lenient if he confesses.
According to Dr Kassin, about 90% of youth waive their right to a lawyer when brought in for questioning by police. It explains the high number of youth making false confessions. Developmental research shows that teens exhibit an “immaturity of judgment” in the way they make decisions. They tend to undermine future risks and focus on the need to feel immediately gratified. As a result, a teen brought under the lens of an interrogator may falsely confess just to escape a tense situation. Moreover, many teens involved in the justice system have diagnosed psychological disorders. Even a portion of the DNA exoneration cases (chronicled by Garrett) involved young or mentally challenged defendants.
Your Turn: Do you think these reasons should force the criminal justice system to reconsider how confessions are utilised? Which aspect of false confessions did you find the most disturbing? Let us know in the comments — we’d love to hear your comments and questions.