Psychology of False Confessions Research Paper

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A false confession is an admission by an innocent person to a crime he or she did not commit, often accompanied by a narrative indicating the particulars of how the crime was committed and why. As first noted by Hugo Munsterberg in 1908, innocent people may confess for a variety of reasons, both dispositional and situational. Munsterberg exhibited an understanding of false confessions ahead of his time and discussed different types of false confessions that are prompted in different ways. In the decades since Munsterberg’s historical work, research has revealed much about the various motivations, tactics, and issues that may result in false confessions, as well as the consequences of those confessions.

False confessions create serious problems for the criminal justice system, especially when the consequences for wrongful convictions are considered. Confession evidence is enormously powerful in court and has a strong impact on judges and juries. Even when contradicted by other evidence and lacking corroboration, confessions produce high rates of conviction. This is partially because confessions can corrupt other evidence, making exculpatory evidence seem artificially weaker while at the same time making inculpatory evidence seem stronger.

To safeguard the criminal justice system, researchers have proposed a number of reforms to the practices of interrogation – including a ban on tactics that put innocent people at risk and the requirement that all interrogations be recorded in their entirety. Additionally, questions have risen concerning the admissibility of expert testimony to educate jurors on why innocent people would confess and the possible impact of those confessions on other evidence. If the rate of false confessions can be curtailed and if lay jurors can become better informed about the limits of confession evidence, the conviction of innocent people may be significantly reduced.

Fundamentals Of False Confessions

Prevalence Of False Confessions

Although false confessions pose a problem for the criminal justice system, there is no way to derive or estimate the frequency of false confessions. Often guilt and innocence cannot be known, and many confession cases are never adequately scrutinized. Examples throughout history, however, suggest false confessions are not a rare occurrence. Dating back to the Salem witch trials of 1692, numerous false confessions have been revealed through various means.

In the past, false confessions could only be identified only when the confessed crime was proved to be impossible (e.g., the alleged victim was still alive) or the real perpetrator was apprehended. The advent of DNA testing in recent years has expanded the identification of the wrongfully convicted, predominantly in cases involving rape and murder. In aggregated databases, it appears that 15–25 % of those wrongfully convicted had confessed to their crimes.

Confession experts note that these cases are the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, the databases of wrongful convictions do not include those whose false confessions were discovered before trial, those that were not publicized, those that were not contested by the confessor, or those that resulted in a plea bargain. In addition, there remain numerous inmates protesting their innocence who are barred access to DNA testing, some of whom may be innocent. Finally, these databases concentrate on US populations – despite documentation of false confessions all over the world – and within the criminal justice system, thus excluding false confessions that occurred within the private sector (e.g., loss prevention cases) and in military intelligence settings.

Types Of False Confessions

Although it is not possible to determine the overall prevalence of false confessions, it is possible to distinguish among different types of false confessions. Researchers recognized that false confessions occur in different ways and for different reasons and created a taxonomy that distinguishes between three types of false confessions: voluntary, compliant, and internalized (Kassin and Wrightsman 1985).

Voluntary False Confessions

Voluntary false confessions occur when individuals willingly and purposefully claim responsibility for crimes they did not commit. These admissions are made in the absence of police pressure or encouragement. People may volunteer false confessions for any number of reasons: to garner attention, fame, or recognition; to satisfy a need for self-punishment in the face of perceived transgressions and feelings of guilt; the inability to distinguish fact from fantasy, which is a common feature of certain psychological disorders; or to protect someone else. Especially a problem with juveniles, voluntary false confessions often occur to protect a parent, child, or other close relative or friend.

Compliant False Confessions

Compliant false confessions occur in response to police pressure during interrogation. In these cases, a suspect is induced to confess in order to escape the stress of interrogation, to avoid a threatened or implied punishment, or to gain a promised or implied reward. The social pressure acting in the interrogation room serves to convince innocent individuals that the short-term benefit of confession (i.e., escape from the interrogation room) outweighs the long-term costs (i.e., prosecution and possible conviction). As a result of isolation, stress, fatigue, or deprivation of needs, innocent individuals may acquiesce to demands for confession, despite knowing they are innocent, as an act of public compliance.

Internalized False Confessions

Sometimes, innocent suspects actually come to believe they have committed a crime for which they are innocent. Typically internalized false confessions involve suspects whose memories are rendered vulnerable to manipulation and who are presented during interrogation with highly suggestive and misleading “evidence” of their guilt. In these cases, the suspect becomes confused, comes to believe that he or she may have committed the crime, and even, at times, confabulates detailed false accounts of what happened. The innocent suspects’ internalized beliefs in their guilt can actually lead to the formation of false memories of what they allegedly did, how they did it, and why.

Risk Factors For False Confession

The risk of false confessions is associated with three sets of factors: (1) dispositional characteristics that make some suspects more vulnerable than others, (2) situational factors associated with the stresses of custody and interrogation, and (3) the phenomenology of innocence, whereby innocents waive their rights.

Dispositional Risk Factors

Dispositional risk factors refer to personal characteristics of suspects that increase their risk of a false confession relative to the general population. Not everyone is equally vulnerable to influence during an interrogation. Instead, factors such as personality, cognitive impairments, psychopathology, and youth can place some individuals at a disproportionate risk of falsely confessing.

Compliance and suggestibility appear to be two important personality risk factors (Gudjonsson 2003). Compliance refers to a desire to please others and avoid confrontation and conflict. Compliant individuals are particularly susceptible to those in a position of authority, with whom confrontation would be much more stressful, putting them at risk in an adversarial interrogation. In contrast, suggestibility concerns the strength and stability of one’s memory. Overall, individuals who score high in suggestibility have poorer overall memories, lower self-esteem, high anxiety, and low levels of assertiveness.

The Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale (GSS) is the typical measure used to assess interrogative suggestibility (Gudjonsson 1984). This measure involves presenting a narrative to a subject who must recall the story immediately and then after a delay. The subject then answers questions about the contents of the paragraph, and some of the questions include misleading information. The test administrator provides negative feedback indicating several answers are incorrect, and then the subject is retested. The scale provides subscale measurements of shift, the tendency to change one’s memory over time, as well as yield, the tendency to cede to misleading questions and incorporate misinformation into memory. In studies of crime suspects, those who had confessed and later retracted their confessions scored higher in suggestibility than the general population, whereas resistors, those who maintained their innocence throughout interrogation, obtained lower scores. Sleep deprivation and alcohol withdrawal can also increase an individuals’ suggestibility as tested by the GSS.

Individuals suffering from mental retardation or other intellectual deficits are also at risk in an interrogation setting (Gudjonsson 2003). Mental retardation is associated with heightened levels of both compliance and suggestibility. Individuals with mental impairments are also less likely to fully comprehend their Miranda rights, more likely to acquiesce to authority figures, and more susceptible to leading questions, misinformation, and other forms of suggestive questioning. Research shows that individuals with mental retardation rely more on authority figures for answers to problems, accept blame for negative outcomes, and have memory deficits.

Research has also identified mental illness as a risk factor (Gudjonsson 2003). Many psychological disorders are associated with distorted perceptions of reality, including difficulty with reality monitoring or separating real life from fantasy. Other common symptoms of psychological disorders include impaired judgment, debilitating anxiety, mood disturbance, and lack of self-control. Each of these factors alone can increase the likelihood of false confession and, in combination, may create a strong risk factor for offering misleading information, including false confessions, during interrogation. Individuals suffering from high anxiety may also be more likely to false confess simply to escape the stress of the interrogation room.

Youth is a particularly strong dispositional risk factor (for a review, see Drizin and Colgan, 2004). Overrepresented in the cases of known false confessors, juveniles aged 18 and younger comprise over 30 % of the sample. Juveniles tend to be more compliant toward authority figures, and they are more likely to trust what those authority figures tell them. Juveniles are more suggestible than adult witnesses, so they are more likely to confabulate details for false accounts under suggestive questioning. Juveniles also have less ability to consider long-term consequences of their actions. This means that juveniles are more likely to confess to obtain the short-term goal of leaving the interrogation room without considering the long-term consequences of such an action. Juveniles also show poorer comprehension of their Miranda rights than adults, so they are less likely to invoke their rights. Research also shows that juveniles are overall more likely to confess than adults.

Situational Risk Factors

Situational risk factors refer to aspects of the custodial setting and police interrogation tactics that can lead innocent people to confess. The Reid technique, the leading method for interrogating suspects used by interrogators across the United States and widely used across the world, uses psychological tactics to produce confessions from suspects (Inbau et al. 2013). The basic approach of the Reid technique is to increase the anxiety associated with continued denial of an offense and decrease the anxiety associated with confession to make it easier for a perpetrator to admit involvement in a crime. To that end, the Reid technique uses many tactics to increase the anxiety of the interrogation setting, some of which may increase the vulnerability of innocent suspects. In particular, researchers have focused on three basic aspects of the interrogation process: isolation, confrontation, and minimization.

Interrogators are trained to question suspects in the police station, away from any support system or familiar surroundings. The Reid technique offers specific instructions on the layout of interrogation rooms, recommending that they be sparse and free of any visual distractions to increase feelings of isolation. Basic social psychology research has shown that isolation can have profound effects on people, who are social beings, particularly in times of stress. Isolation reduces feelings of self-control, autonomy, certainty about the future, anxiety, and, in turn, incentive to confess in order to escape the aversive situation.

The anxiety stemming from isolation builds up over time, which highlights the issue of interrogation time as a risk factor. Observational and survey research indicate that the typical interrogation lasts under 2 h. In contrast, interrogations resulting in known false confessions last an average of more than 16 h, with over one-third of false confessions lasting between 12 and 24 h (Drizin and Leo 2004). It stands to reason that these lengthy interrogations are associated with increased anxiety, fatigue, and sleep deprivation, which can impair decision-making and increase the tendency to confess as matter of expediency.

In the second stage of interrogation, interrogators confront suspects with strong assertions of guilt. The goal is to convince suspects that resistance is futile and that confession is their best option. Interrogators are specially trained to overcome suspects’ denials, refute their alibis, point to inconsistencies in their stories, and convince them that proof of the suspect’s guilt is certain. These claims are often bolstered by the presentation of false evidence. One common method of presenting false evidence is through use of the polygraph. After a suspect takes a polygraph, the interrogator informs the suspect that he or she has failed, irrespective of the actual outcome of the test. This tactic is designed to convince suspects that their guilt is obvious and conviction is certain, so confession is the only reasonable option. The presentation of false evidence serves to make innocent suspects feel trapped by the evidence. In this situation, innocent suspects sometimes feel they have no choice but to confess in order to obtain leniency for a crime for which they do not believe they can prove their innocence. There have been numerous exoneration cases involving the presentation of false evidence, and false evidence has been shown to consistently increase the rate of false confession in laboratory experiments as well.

The third stage of the interrogation process is to minimize the crime. Once suspects feel trapped by the weight of alleged evidence, interrogators provide suspects with moral justifications and face-saving excuses for the crime. Minimization increases the tendency to confess by minimizing suspects’ perceptions of the consequences of confession. Interrogators are thus trained to develop elaborate “themes” for why a suspect committed a crime – themes that minimize their moral culpability. Interrogators may suggest that the crime was accidental, for example, provoked by the victim, unplanned, well intended, or the result of a drug or alcohol problem or peer pressure. Although minimization statements do not offer explicit promises of leniency, research shows that they lead people to infer that leniency will be forthcoming following confession.

Innocence As A Risk Factor

By observing that innocent suspects behaved differently from guilty suspects in the interrogation room, Kassin (2005) proposed the provocative theory that innocence itself could be a risk factor for confession. Innocent suspects tend to believe the truth will prevail and their innocence will be obvious to interrogators. As a result, innocent suspects put themselves at risk by waiving their Miranda rights to silence and to counsel, agreeing to speak with the police, and cooperating fully (Kassin and Norwick 2004). Believing they have nothing to fear or hide, innocent suspects fully answer questions about a crime, even when the answers include information that could be seen as incriminating. Research suggests that innocent suspects do not use self-presentation “strategies” about their narrative content when talking to police, so their stories do not vary according to the questioning process (e.g., Hartwig et al. 2005). Of course, innocent suspects are often initially unaware that they are suspects, instead believing that they are aiding in the investigation.

Being forthright can have unintended consequences for the innocent suspect who is interrogated. Research shows that police presume guilt when questioning suspects and that this guilt bias can lead them to engage in more aggressive interrogations with innocent suspects who vigorously deny involvement (Kassin et al. 2003). These aggressive interrogations may include more problematic techniques that increase risk of false confession. When interrogators use the false-evidence ploy, for example, innocent suspects may feel trapped and confess as a means of minimizing consequences. Even when interrogators do not use the false-evidence ploy, the practice of increasing the anxiety associated with denial during interrogation can lead innocent, as well as guilty, suspects to search for a way out of interrogation. When police officers bluff about evidence – assert evidence has been found but not yet tested – innocent suspects may still falsely confess to escape the stressful situation, believing the evidence would later exonerate them (Perillo and Kassin 2011).

Empirical Research On False Confessions

False confessions have been studied using a variety of methods: individual and aggregated case studies, naturalistic observations of police interrogations, self-report data from police officers and prison inmates, and laboratory and field experiments.

Two main laboratory paradigms exist in the false confession field. In the first, participants are accused of hitting a forbidden key during a computer-typing task and crashing a computer (Kassin and Kiechel 2004; Kassin and Kiechel 1996). In the original study of this paradigm, researchers also manipulated participant vulnerability by varying the speed in which the participants typed the letters. Some participants were also presented with false evidence in the guise of a confederate who claimed to have seen the participants hit the key they were instructed to avoid. The false-evidence ploy increased rates of false confession, internalization, and confabulation, especially among those when rendered vulnerable with the fast typing speed. This computercrash paradigm has been used all over the world to replicate and extend these original findings.

A second paradigm tested false confessions by varying guilt and innocence within a cheating scenario (Russano et al. 2005). Participants were paired with a confederate to solve a series of problems, which varied between solo and joint sessions. In the guilty condition, the confederate requested help from the participant during a solo session, which was a violation of the experimental rule. In the innocent condition, the confederate worked silently and did not request help. All participants were later accused of cheating by the experimenter. In a test of the impact of minimization, the experimenter then promised leniency, made minimizing remarks, used both tactics, or used no tactics when asking for a confession. Results showed that minimization substantially increased the rate of false confession, similar to the increase caused by an explicit promise of leniency. This paradigm has also been replicated and extended a number of times and offers the advantage of eliciting from participants true and false confessions to willful actions of consequence.

Current Issues And Controversies

The Identification Of Suspects

The Reid technique operates through a two-part structure. Interrogators are trained to first conduct a pre-interrogation interview, during which investigators identify who should be a suspect. After identification of suspects, the second stage begins: the interrogation.

The pre-interrogation interview is designed to be a nonconfrontational information-gathering interaction during which the interrogator establishes rapport, develops an understanding of a suspect’s baseline of behavior, and attempts to determine whether the suspect is being deceptive. Using the Behavior Analysis Interview, or BAI, interrogators are trained to ask behavior provoking questions and then observe the suspect’s responses. The responses to the provocative questions are believed to offer indications of innocence or guilt. Interrogators are taught to focus on nonverbal cues (e.g., body language, fidgeting, eye gaze, posture) as well as verbal cues (e.g., qualified denials, pauses) to decide who is lying or telling the truth. If the interrogator is convinced of truthfulness, the individual is dismissed and sent home. If the interrogator is convinced of deception, the suspect is interrogated.

The Reid technique, both in the manual and in actual training sessions, claims that interrogators can be trained to make these judgments of guilt and innocence at a high level of accuracy, yet the research in the field of deception detection is highly contradictory to these claims. Research has consistently shown that laypersons can only detect deception at around chance levels (i.e., 54 % accuracy) and, furthermore, that training does not appreciably improve performance (Bond and DePaulo 2006). Research studies specifically using the BAI have shown similarly dismal rates of accuracy in deception detection and identification of guilty suspects. There is no evidence that the behavior-provoking questions recommended by the Reid technique actually have any diagnostic value. Furthermore, there is no evidence that suggests that the verbal and nonverbal cues upon which interrogators are trained to rely have any diagnostic value. Research on deception detection has consistently shown that there are few valid cues to deception and that those that do exist are often too weak to be used for discriminatory purposes in an interrogation (Hartwig and Bond 2011). Instead of improving performance, training simply increases and often inflates confidence in one’s decision.

The pre-interrogation interview sets the stage for interrogations as a guilt-presumptive process. Investigators enter into interrogations with a strong belief in the guilt of their suspects, so the goal of each interrogation is to extract a confession. This guilt-presumptive belief impacts how investigators conduct and perceive their interrogations. Research in basic psychology has long shown that once people form a belief, they seek out information that confirms that belief and ignore or misinterpret evidence that contradicts it. Known as confirmation bias, this tendency means it is difficult for a suspect to convince an interrogator of his or her innocence once a suspicion of guilt has formed. The presumption of guilt can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby the interrogator’s aggressive behavior invokes anxiety in the suspect, which in turn confirms the interrogator’s belief in guilt. Research has shown that interviewers who believe a suspect is guilty ask more guilt presumptive questions and place more pressure on suspects to confess, which increases risk for false confession.

The Consequences Of Confession

The criminal justice system is designed to provide safety nets to prevent false confessions from resulting in prosecution and wrongful convictions. For these safety nets to work, attorneys, judges, and juries must be able to distinguish between true and false confessions. The narrative content of confessions, however, as well as their corrupting influence on other evidence makes it difficult for people inside and outside the system to make this distinction.

The Impact On Juries

Confession evidence is considered something of a gold standard for evidence. It is difficult for laypersons to accept the idea that individuals may falsely confess to crimes they did not commit; therefore, juries tend to accept confessions at face value. Research has shown that juries are capable of distinguishing between coercive and noncoercive interrogations, but that distinction does not impact their use of the confession in their verdicts. Juries are just as likely to use highly suspect confessions derived from coercive interrogations to determine verdicts as they are to use one stemming from a noncoercive interview.

Another reason why juries may have a hard time dismissing false confessions is their oftenelaborative content. Examination of the narrative content of false confessions has shown that false confessions tend to be highly detailed, often containing accurate nonpublic information about the crime (Garrett 2010). False confessions also tend to include descriptions of motives and feelings during and after the crime (Appleby et al. 2011). Combined with the tendency to rely on the (erroneous) common sense that innocent people do not falsely confess, these crime details may serve to convince jurors that these confessions are true and accurate statements from actual perpetrators.

Corrupting Influence Of Confessions

Confessions can also taint the interpretation of other evidence. Once it is known that a suspect confessed, trained professionals as well as laypeople may view other evidence as consistent and indicative of guilt – especially when that evidence is ambiguous. This effect has been observed in judgments made about polygraph charts and eyewitness identifications (Elaad et al. 1994; Hasel and Kassin 2009). Research has also shown that context effects have similarly been observed in judgments made from fingerprints and certain complex DNA evidence (Dror and Charlton 2006; Dror and Hampikian 2011). These findings are bolstered by a recent analysis of DNA exonerations from the Innocence Project, where forensic science errors are found in nearly two-thirds of false confession cases (Kassin et al. 2012).


Research has shown that confessions may sometimes improperly influence the investigation, prosecution, and review of cases. To that end, interrogation reform is needed to follow the best practices that have been identified in the literature. Research must also continue to address other potential reforms at other stages in the criminal justice process.

The PEACE Model

Reforms to interrogation practices have been enacted in Great Britain. Beginning with the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act of 1984, interrogation practices have shifted from a focus on psychologically coercive tactics designed to elicit confessions to a more investigative, fact-finding approach. In 1993, the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice created the PEACE model, which instituted training for police officers and further reduced reliance on psychologically coercive techniques. PEACE refers to the five components of the new interviewing technique: “preparation and planning,” “engage and explain,” “account,” “closure,” and “evaluate.” Studies show that certain Reid techniques – including minimization and the false-evidence ploy – are now rarely used in Great Britain, yet the rate of confessions has not dropped (for a review, see Kassin et al. 2010). Given the current research findings, it appears investigative interviewing may present a useful alternative to the confrontational methods of the typical American interrogation.

Expert Testimony

Getting false confession experts admitted into court has proven difficult in many jurisdictions. In general, expert testimony on false confessions has been excluded for two reasons: (1) questions about the science behind the study of false confessions and (2) the idea that false confession research is known to jurors as a matter of common sense, rendering expert testimony unnecessary. Research has shown that jurors may be able to distinguish between coercive and noncoercive tactics, but they still do not believe that coercive tactics will produce false confessions. Recent research combined with anecdotal evidence suggests that jurors believe that the ends justify the means, in that it is acceptable to use highly coercive tactics to obtain confessions, strengthening presumptions that highly coerced confessions may be nonetheless accepted as true (Blando´ nGitlin et al. 2011). This recent research has also suggested that expert testimony can successfully educate jurors as to how these coercive tactics can produce false confessions, but much more research on the potential benefits of expert testimony is needed.

Videotaping Of Police Interrogations

The most widespread proposed reform, which has recently been adopted in many states and jurisdictions, concerns the videotaping of interrogations in their entirety. Videotaping of interrogation is actually the leading recommendation of the official American-Psychology Law Society White Paper on false confessions (Kassin et al. 2010). The strengths of videotaping benefit both the police and the suspect. With a complete recording of an interrogation, the truth about the use of egregious interrogation tactics is known. This record may serve the suspect by reducing interrogators’ reliance on those tactics, as well as providing an accurate record about the use of those tactics for court. This practice may also serve interrogators, however, because that same record could be used to refute illegitimate claims of police intimidation or coercion.

It is a well-known finding in psychology that memory is not perfect. Memories are subject to forgetting and distortions, which impair the accuracy of a suspect’s or interrogator’s memory of an interrogation. With a videotape of the interrogation, there is no question of who said what and when. It would be possible, for example, to review a tape and see where evidence “only the perpetrator could know” actually came from – the suspect or the interrogator. Anecdotal evidence has shown that police interrogators sometimes make source monitoring errors and remember suspects as first admitting details that they had in fact confronted them with earlier. Review of videotaped interrogations could clarify cases when incriminating accounts by a suspect were based on information first offered by the interrogator and, just as importantly, affirm investigators’ accounts when the suspect indeed offered unique information “only the perpetrator could know.”


False confessions weaken the integrity of our criminal justice system. Many recent examples have garnered strong media attention and interest, including the Amanda Knox case. Research has identified a number of risk factors that place innocent suspects at risk for falsely confessing, including dispositional and interrogative risk factors as well as innocence itself. Research has also been undertaken to understand the consequences of confession in hopes that the impact of false confessions may one day be mitigated, if not prevented.

Still, more research is needed in the realm of false confessions. Investigative interviewing presents a first step for interrogative reform, but there remains a need to identify interrogation tactics that have genuine diagnostic value – the ability to elicit true confessions without also eliciting false confessions. Research also must further investigate the consequences of confessions – how confessions impact the criminal justice process and how that impact can be minimized – and the extent that expert testimony can serve as a remedy to the consequences of confession. These avenues of research have been largely untouched and need to be explored.

By offering erroneous evidence that a crime has been “solved,” false confessions interfere with our justice system’s ability to capture the actual perpetrators of crime. Once police have a confession from the person they believe committed the crime, all avenues of evidence toward other suspects – including, in cases of false confessions, the actual perpetrator – are no longer explored, and any further evidence pointing another direction is often either disregarded or misinterpreted to further implicate the innocent confessor. Current practices must be evaluated and reforms undertaken to secure convictions from the actually guilty while avoiding the wrongful convictions of innocent persons.


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