How False Confessions Can Lead to Wrongful Convictions


By Catherine A. SandersonAmherst College

A major factor causing wrongful convictions is false confessions. Police officers are trained to use specific psychological tactics to get someone to confess to a crime. After all, a confession is even more convincing to a jury than an eyewitness identification, largely because it seems impossible to imagine how or why someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit.

A witness standing in front of the magistrate in the court
Jurors tend to believe confessions more than anything else. (Image: Salivanchuk Semen/Shutterstock)

The Reid Technique

Police tactics can include exaggerating the amount of evidence they have, claiming they have an eyewitness, a recording of the crime, or fingerprints. In other cases, they minimize the crime and offer excuses for it as a way of befriending the suspect and leading them to expect confessing will be no big deal. Estimates are that police detectives use an average of five or six tactics on each suspect.

Some of these misleading and subtly coercive techniques were first developed as an alternative to the previous strategy of using physical force—beatings—to elicit information. A former police polygraph expert, John Reid, codified some of these tactics in the 1950s and later created a training company under his own name. 

Such tactics are, therefore, sometimes referred to as the “Reid technique”. But here’s the problem: These tactics are so effective at gaining confessions that they can, at least in some cases, lead people to confess to crimes they didn’t actually commit.

The Internalization Process

Young people are particularly likely to confess, especially when stressed or tired. In a classic demonstration of how situational factors can get someone to falsely confess, researchers set up a fake computer crash. Students were told to complete a computer task as fast as they can and are given strict instructions not to hit the Alt key because doing so will trigger a crash. 

Now, in reality, the computer was programmed to crash after a certain period of time, regardless of whether that key is touched. After the computer crashed, the researcher then accused the student of touching the forbidden key. Although in reality none of the students ever touched the key, and initially no one confessed to doing so, the researcher then escalated the pressure, exactly like police officers do during an interrogation.

The researcher then hands the student a form stating that they had indeed pressed the wrong key and asks them to sign it. Who signs? Students who believed another person had witnessed their doing so were nearly twice as likely to sign as those without a witness. People who were told there was a recording of the keystrokes were even more likely to sign.

A police interrogation room
Pressure on suspects sometimes leads to false confessions. (Image: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock),

Some students later reported that they just wanted to get out of the situation and figured that the consequences of signing won’t be a big deal and that the recording of the event will later clear them, so the truth will come out. So, these people know they didn’t do it, but choose to sign anyway.

But other students actually come to believe that they really had pressed the key, believing that they had done so unintentionally, maybe with the side of their hand, and that they have somehow forgotten or blocked it from their memory. These students, therefore, sign the confession because they truly feel they have committed the act, even when that isn’t what happened. This process is called internalization.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to PsychologyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Credibility of Confession

A microbiologist testing crime evidence for DNA
If it can be proved that the DNA evidence isn’t in line with the confession, the jury accepts the confession as more convincing evidence. (Image: Couperfield/Shutterstock)

Confessions can even change how DNA evidence is interpreted. Researchers in one study found that when jurors are given a choice between relying on a confession and DNA evidence, they weigh DNA evidence more heavily. But if the prosecutor can provide some theory about why the DNA evidence isn’t in line with the confession, juries then overwhelmingly side with the confession. 

It basically all comes down to the story provided, and juries tend to believe people who confess to doing something are in fact guilty. In other words, a confession, regardless of how it’s obtained, practically guarantees a guilty verdict. Even when people recognize that a confession was given under duress, they still tend to believe the person is guilty.

Preventing Wrongful Convictions

Fortunately, a growing awareness of wrongful convictions has led to important reforms. Much of this work has been led by Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He’s served as an expert witness in many high-profile cases around the world to help judges and jurors understand how psychological factors can lead to wrongful convictions.

Kassin and his colleagues point to a number of reforms that can help. These include changing interrogation procedures, such as preventing lying by the police, recording all interrogations from start to finish, and restricting interrogation time. 

Still, other recommendations focus on how police officers should interview and interact with eyewitnesses to make sure witnesses are not pressured, encouraged, or persuaded to give false statements. For example, a fascinating study published in 2018, suggests a simple new technique can help eyewitnesses remember more about what they’ve seen. 

This system—known as Category Cluster Recall, or CCR—prompts eyewitnesses to remember what they’ve seen in three distinct steps: First what the people involved in the crime looked like, then what those people did, and finally, what the environment in which the crime took place looked like.

The most exciting thing is that our improved understanding of how to avoid false confessions and false testimony can help solve some of the problems created by the use of practices that have become standard in the field of psychology as well as by police officers, detectives, and lawyers.

Common Questions about False Confessions and Wrongful Convictions

Q: What are the police tactics to elicit information?

Police can use different techniques such as claiming they have a recording of the crime, fingerprints, and an eyewitness.

Q: What is internalization?

Sometimes, a person may be accused of a crime that they never committed. Now, if someone tells that they saw them committing a crime, the accused may truly believe that they committed that crime and may even make false confessions. This is what is called internalization.

Q: What are some reforms that could stop false confessions?

Some of the reforms include prohibiting lying by the police, limiting interrogation time, and recording everything from the beginning to the end during the interrogation.

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