2016 Press Releases

Why make a false confession?

18 Apr 2016
What happens when a suspect lies about their guilt? Why would someone confess to a crime they had nothing to do with? Photo: Drewdlecam on Flickr.

You’ve just confessed to cheating in your UCC summer exams, knowing you’ll be expelled…But you’re innocent. So why confess? Gillian Murphy of the PsychSlam Organising Committee at UCC explores the topic. 

You might be thinking “I would never admit to something I didn’t do, especially something like cheating on my exams which would carry a serious punishment and ruin my reputation”. While most people can’t imagine themselves ever making a false confession, DNA evidence has shown us just how often suspects crack under pressure.

Consider the case of Damon Thibodeaux, a man who confessed in July 1996 to raping and strangling his 14-year-old cousin. Damon was taken in for questioning and agreed to a polygraph test, which police told him he failed. After nine hours of interrogation, Damon confessed to the murder on tape, offering up details of the crime – almost all of which were inconsistent with the forensic evidence (e.g. he said he raped the victim, when in fact there was no evidence of sexual assault). Once he confessed, he was allowed to eat and rest, after which he immediately recanted his statement. However it was too late, and based on his recorded confession, he was sentenced to death. He spent 15 years on death row before DNA evidence exonerated him. 

Why would anyone make a false confession?

Most suspects will try their hardest to convince law enforcement that they did not commit the crime they are being accused of. Investigators are trained to detect when criminals are lying about their innocence. But what happens when a suspect lies about their guilt? Why would someone confess to a crime they had nothing to do with?

This is a topic of major interest in forensic psychology as false confessions happen more often than you might think – false confessions were made in the case of 31% of suspects that were later exonerated by DNA evidence, with that number rising to 63% in homicide cases (innocenceproject.org). But recently, false confessions have come into public focus, with the case of Brendan Dassey on Netlifx’s hugely popular ‘Making A Murderer’ prompting much debate and discussion. Derren Brown also conducted a TV special called ‘The Guilt Trip’ in 2011, a hidden-camera set-up where where a man ultimately drove himself to a police station to confess to a murder he did not commit. While some people can confess just to end the exhausting interrogation and leave the room, others seem to genuinely believe that they are guilty of the crime. Why is this?

The phenomenon of false confessions is well supported by social psychology research. One famous study by Kassin & Kiechel (1996) had participants work in pairs to type up a document, warning them that if they pressed the ‘Alt’ key, the computer would crash and all their data would be lost. One of the pair (the one reading rather than typing) was actually part of the research team. At a set point, the computer suddenly crashed and the confederate would accuse the participant of hitting Alt, sometimes even claiming they had seen them do it. 69% of participants signed a confession saying that they had hit the Alt key and were twice as likely to do so when their partner claimed they had seen it happen. Some subjects even constructed a narrative to explain how it happened, volunteering details like “Yes, here, I hit it with the side of my hand right after you called out the ‘A’”.

We all forget things and have mistaken memories, which means that we sometimes are prepared to change our memories of our own actions if there is conflicting evidence. Have you ever discussed a movie with a friend, convinced that you watched it together? If they repeatedly insist that they have never seen that film, you’re usually happy enough to conclude that you must be mistaken. This has striking implications for interrogations, particularly when it comes to lying to suspects. Simply saying ‘your fingerprints were on the gun’ can make individuals reconsider their own recollections and be more likely to offer up a false confession. Children and those with cognitive disabilities are especially vulnerable to this and so law enforcement are encouraged to take extra precautions when conducting interrogations.

Can you just recant the confession?

So why are false confessions so damaging? Law enforcement officers, lawyers, jury members, in fact, anyone who is involved in investigating a crime…well, they are all human, just like you and I. So despite knowing how false confessions can happen, it’s very difficult for us to rid ourselves of the bias they create. A false confession is probably the most counter-intuitive behavior imaginable, why would you say you did something terrible, that you know carries a significant punishment, if you didn’t do it?  

Hearing that a subject has confessed can taint everything else about the case, not just the attitudes of police officers or jury members, but even eye-witnesses to the crime itself. In one study (Hasel & Kassin, 2009), witnesses to a staged crime were shown a line-up, where they selected the criminal. Upon being told that another person had confessed to the crime, 61% of them changed their identifications. Those who had not selected someone from the initial line-up, went on to identify the confessor after they learned about him.  In another study (Marion et al., 2015), participants were paired up with a confederate to complete a problem solving study in a testing room. The confederate was later accused of stealing money from a different office during the study session. After initially providing an alibi for the confederate, just 45% of participants maintained their support once they learned that the confederate had confessed.

A false confession can also contaminate evidence that most would consider more objective, like fingerprint analysis. In a 2006 study, Dror & Charlton cleverly examined the effect of bias in forensic experts. Five international fingerprint experts agreed to partake in their study, but were not told which of the cases they were working on pertained to the experiment. One day while at work, they received prints that unbeknownst to them, were cases which they had analysed within the last 5 years. They provided them with contextual information that might bias them (e.g. ‘this man has confessed to the crime’) and astoundingly, two-thirds of the experts changed their mind about the samples.

We know from cases such as Damon’s, where the wrongfully convicted are exonerated by DNA evidence, that false confessions do occur and can often result in an innocent person being convicted. Ultimately, it seems that making a false confession is easier and more common than we think, and once a confession has been recorded, the consequences can be life changing. Psychologists have made many recommendations to try to limit false confessions, such as not lying to subjects and recording entire interrogation sessions rather than just the confession, so some context can be provided. Ultimately, though it can be counter-intuitive, we must remember that if we wouldn’t believe a suspects claim of innocence without corroborating it, then we shouldn’t believe a claim of guilt either.

Learn more about psychology topics like this one at PsychSlam 2016, taking place in UCC this Wednesday (April 20). Watch teams of Transition Year students from across Ireland present their research in six minutes on topics including Conor McGregor’s mental toughness, why placebos work and why we enjoy watching soppy movies like The Notebook. See more at: https://www.ucc.ie/en/apsych/psychslam/

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