Study Examines Why False Confessions Occur

Residents of Kalamazoo may have read about news stories in which an individual confesses to a crime that he or she did not commit. While accurate statistics related to the prevalence of false confessions are difficult to obtain, according to the nonprofit the Innocence Project, in "30% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty."

It's hard to figure out why anyone would confess to a crime they didn't commit. Many people likely reason that an individual who provides a false confession suffers from some sort of mental or emotional condition or maybe was an accomplice or witness to a similar crime. However, new research suggests that individuals who by all accounts are mentally sane and emotionally stable can be tricked into recalling vivid memories of criminal incidences that never occurred.

For the study, the results of which are published in the journal Psychological Science, 60 university students were provided details of one true event and one fictional criminal or emotional event that occurred when they were between the ages of 11 and 14.

Over the course of three weeks, the students were provided details of the fictional events during three 40-minute interviews. When discussing the false event, interviewers included factual details related to the students' lives as well as completely fictional details. Participants who had difficulty recalling details of the fictional event were prompted by interviewers to employ certain memory-recalling strategies.

When asked to retell details of both the factual and fictional events, 21 of the 30 students who were provided details of their involvement in a fictional criminal event "were classified as having developed a false memory of the crime." Additionally, 11 of these individuals were able to provide vivid descriptions of the event and their interactions with the police. Roughly the same percentage of students who were provided false information about a past emotional event, also reported false memories.

The results of the study indicate that the minds of human beings can easily be manipulated to believe and recall false memories. The results of this study are significant in helping identify those interview and interrogation techniques that may result in false memories and confessions.

Source: Association for Psychological Science, “People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened,” Jan. 15, 2015

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