Post No.: 0443
Confessions are highly persuasive. Less than half of suspects in criminal cases make full confessions but they’re the number one reason for determining a conviction if a case goes to trial.
Confessions can even eclipse hard evidence and other details in an investigation – they have the power to corrupt how we read and trust other evidence and counterevidence! Most people assume that suspects would never ever confess to something they didn’t do thus tend to trust in confessions, even if they know that they were obtained by using high-pressure tactics. But such tactics can lead to ‘false confessions’ and therefore miscarriages of justice. They are a main reason for wrongful convictions.
False confessions can be obtained by applying physical discomfort and threat. But external pressure doesn’t have to be as extreme as torture and can be any kind of duress or stress, such as exhaustion or time pressure. Coercion, whether overt (e.g. physical beatings), covert (e.g. deprivation, isolation, intimidation) or psychological (e.g. direct confrontation in conjunction with closed-ended confirmatory questions, creating anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty), can be used in order to assert control over and manipulate a suspect. False confessions can also arise due to mental health reasons or intoxication/drugs. Severe sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations, and even moderate sleep deprivation can make someone more suggestible, which could potentially lead to a false confession. Meow.
We may assume that no one would ever confess to a crime they never committed but we need to understand the situational and dispositional factors that can predispose and/or lead someone into mental duress, which in turn can lead to false confessions. Some people are more predispositionally vulnerable to giving false confessions because they’re more prone to compliance and suggestibility, are highly anxious, depressed to resignation, delusional or have a mental disorder such as psychosis, which means that they might occasionally confuse fact from fantasy.
And none of us really knows how we’d react in a police interrogation as a suspect unless we’ve been in that situation ourselves. So we won’t truly know for sure if we’re vulnerable or not (regarding any unusual situation really) until we actually face that exact situation. Being young can also increase one’s vulnerability to giving false confessions too – perhaps due to increased naivety and suggestibility, or due to always needing to make false confessions because of parents who believe they’re ‘never wrong’ in their accusations (i.e. parents who’ll punish their children even more if their children don’t apparently own up to what they’ve been accused of doing, such as saying, “I won’t stop caning you until you admit that you did it” when the child didn’t do it).
But suspects don’t have to appear to be predispositionally vulnerable to make false confessions – suspects may also simply misinterpret what they’ve been asked.
Every denial will be ignored, and even a denial after a confession will be ignored. An error in a statement is only believed if it incriminates yet not if it de-incriminates a suspect, because we’re confirmation biased to prove their guilt. So a thousand denials could be ignored, whilst any hint of a confession will be latched upon. Any confession can also halt the desire to investigate other persons of interest, but if the confession is false then it’ll hinder the whole investigation.
Questioning begins after a suspect has been identified (see Post No.: 0347). And when an investigator believes that she/he has found the perpetrator after an initial behavioural analysis interview, she/he may switch from merely interviewing to interrogating the suspect to extract a confession – but this can lead to trouble as there is already presumed guilt, and therefore that confirmation bias.
Some interrogation techniques can increase the rate of false confessions more than the rate of true ones, and using these techniques can actually compromise an entire investigation since confessions obtained in this way are far less reliable.
One example is a pragmatic implication of leniency through minimisation tactics when with an emotional suspect – the investigator will try to lessen the seriousness of the offence by making statements that express sympathy and concern or that offer morally acceptable or face-saving excuses for their alleged actions. They may also suggest that it’s actually in the suspect’s best interests to confess (perhaps to relieve their apparent internal guilt) or the suspect did what they did but shouldn’t take (all of) the blame for it. An interrogator could alternatively use maximisation techniques against an unemotional suspect – by attempting to scare or intimidate them by exaggerating the charges. They may also make an explicit offer of leniency via a ‘deal’ or plea bargain.
They may try to extract an admission of lying about a small aspect of the crime, and then use the fact that the suspect lied once to suggest that they’ve lied about their entire story.
They may lay out all of the (supposed) evidence that they’ve found in an attempt to confront the suspect head-on and overcome any objections they may raise to this (supposed) evidence, and constantly interrupt their statements of denial for believing erroneously that innocent people will never cease their denials or change angles of defence.
They may get in the suspect’s face and urge them to confess by showing sympathy, empathy and understanding for committing the offence, or by focusing them on the reasons/motivations for committing the offence (but of course hating someone doesn’t necessarily mean killing them, or occasionally having sexual impulses doesn’t necessarily mean raping someone, for instance) and creating a remorseful mood.
They may try to create an opportunity to confess by providing an explanation or excuse for the crime, and try to put words into a suspect’s mouth or use leading or false dichotomy questions, such as, “Was it your own idea or did someone talk you into it?” or, “Only a smart person could’ve done this and you’re smart aren’t you?”
The final part may then be to encourage the suspect to recount the details of the crime and then convert that into a written and signed confession.
False confessions are more likely to come after long interrogations too, as these mentally wear the suspect down; and the longer an interrogation, the more chance of a verbal slip too.
‘Attitude change’, in this context, is about the attitude towards confessing being relative to the perceived consequences of confessing – so if the interrogator can get the suspect to think more positively about confessing by diminishing any negative consequences of admitting guilt, then it can change the suspect’s attitude to seeing confession as the most sensible option for them. This can be achieved by giving the suspect the impression that they’re going to be convicted anyway so they might as well confess to receive a lighter sentence instead of a heavier one. With confessions (as with entrapment too) – everyone has a price tag or limit. The problem is that this works with guilty and innocent suspects alike. (Entrapment can occur if an undercover agent or informant induces someone into committing a crime they were not otherwise inclined to commit – if the defendant was resistant but the agent was insistent then there may be a case of entrapment.)
Contextual factors that can tempt an interrogator into using unethical tactics include – the pressure to solve the crime, the (presumed) strength of the prosecution evidence, the nature and seriousness of the crime, and the length and nature of the detention and interrogation. From the suspect’s perspective, they may give a false confession in order to avoid a greater punishment or to gain some kind of promised reward in the future. (Discounting can come into play as the person sees the short-term gain as more valuable than the long-term pain, especially if the interview is or is expected to be lengthy and/or if the crime is perceived to be not that serious to the suspect.) Here, the suspect knows that she/he didn’t commit the crime but confesses to simply avoid a (perceived greater) pain.
Moreover, an innocent person can also begin to internalise and believe that they did commit the crime as a result of an interrogation – in this case, the person’s memory for the event may be permanently changed or they may be led to believe that they have blocked out the memory of committing the crime. An innocent person placed under prolonged and stressful accusations can start to question her/himself and her/his own memories – especially if she/he’s outnumbered in who believes what – even though she/he is ultimately innocent.
In one experiment, if false evidence – in this case computer readouts of supposed key presses made by the participants during a typing task – is presented to an innocent participant who is made vulnerable due to a heightened state of uncertainty of their own innocence (maybe because they may have indeed accidentally pressed a wrong key or two) then they may internalise and ‘confabulate’ a guilty memory for the event (i.e. fabricate a memory as compensation for a perceived loss of memory, without the conscious intention to deceive – our minds seek coherency and so likes to fill in any gaps, even though they’ll be filled in with assumptions).
Fuzzy factors that were used to promote the likelihood of eliciting a false confession even further were – a seemingly independent eyewitness (a confederate in these experiments) claiming that they saw the participant do the ‘crime’ (performing an incorrect key press on the task), writing out a confession so that all the suspect had to do was sign it thus making it easy for a false confession to be made, as well as promising a relatively low consequence for confessing.
About two-thirds of these participants falsely confessed to the allegation that they performed an incorrect key press on the task. A portion of these innocent people who falsely confessed internalised the guilt that they must’ve done it. And a portion of these people in turn then even confabulated an entire false memory of the supposed incident, including specific details, in order to support and maintain a consistent story where they must’ve indeed committed the ‘crime’ (to relieve their cognitive dissonance).
Note though that the ‘heightened state of uncertainty of their own innocence’ was simulated in these experiments by getting the participants to try to complete a task speedily and thus slips/fumbles may have occurred without these people being personally clear whether these accidents happened or not – when, by comparison, people tend to have no trouble remembering whether they had or hadn’t stabbed someone on purpose(!) And the perceived cost to confess in these experiments was low too – these experiments focused on an alleged harmless accident rather than a wilful and illegal action.
Having said that, about a third of the participants still complied and confessed even when there was no heightened state of uncertainty, when a modified version of the experiment allowed the participants to complete the task slowly and thus any slips/fumbles would’ve been obvious to them, and there was no witness present either. Although none of these people internalised their guilt or confabulated a false memory under these conditions.
The presence of a supposed eyewitness alone was sufficient to significantly increase the rate of compliance and internalised confessions, even in the low vulnerability condition (slow pace of typing).
This shows us that false or fallible eyewitness accounts (either because they’re deliberate lies or the account was mistaken), as well as false, planted or alleged evidence (such as stating that the DNA results were conclusive even though they weren’t), can significantly increase the rates of false confessions – either because it creates doubt in the suspect’s own mind about her/his own memory of the event and/or because it then seems like a losing battle, and therefore one might as well confess to get the ordeal over and done with and/or one is hoping to receive a lighter punishment.
Meow. This all means that if we really care about serving justice then we must be incredibly careful to avoid eliciting false confessions.