The Psychology of False Confessions

Confessions have always been regarded as the best type of evidence that can be presented in a court of law. Centuries ago, a confession amounted to a conviction. Nowadays, the majority of criminal cases are solved by virtue of a confession, and jurors give a great importance to confession statements even when they are later retracted. The recent boom of true crime -with documentaries like Making a Murderer, Shadow of Truth or podcasts like Actual Innocence- has put the topic of false confessions in the spotlight. 

It is very hard to assess the incidence of false confessions in a given country. The Innocent Project estimates that 25% of exonerees in the United States had confessed to the crime. Today I will like to take a look at the Psychology of false confessions, how and why do people confess to a crime they haven’t committed.

Types of false confessions

Before I begin, I will quickly touch on two types of false confessions that don’t need a lot of explanation. Firstly, we have the voluntary false confession. Voluntary confessions are common in very high-profile cases where someone confesses to a crime hoping to gain fame or recognition. Another type of voluntary false confession occurs when the person confessing is trying to protect the actual perpetrator. For instance, a mother trying to prevent her son from going to jail for killing her abusive husband. 

The second type would be the coerced compliant confession. This confession is made by someone who has been forced to confess. The confession can be forced by means of physical violence or threats of being charged with other crimes if they don’t confess to the crime in question. It is important to note that in this instance, the subject is completely aware that they did not commit the crime and are just “cooperating” to avoid an adverse situation.

The third type of false confession is the most interesting one from a psychological point of view but also very unsettling to consider. It is called the coerced internalized confession. In this case, the person confessing to a crime they didn’t participate in, will eventually believe they committed such crime and their memory of the event in question can be altered forever. 


How does a coerced internalized confession occur?

To understand this, we need to understand how human memory works. Human memory doesn’t work like computer memory, our memories are being transformed constantly. Every time we recall a stored memory, we reprocess it again and the end product -that we send back to storage- it’s something very similar to the original memory but with a few modifications. We introduce these modifications ourselves when we think about how that event unfolded. However, accounts from other people or information added by others can also change the way we remember said event. 

The good news is that it takes a “perfect storm” of circumstances for a coerced internalized confession to happen, the bad news is that the most vulnerable people in our society are at risk. 

The first factor we need to consider is how interrogations are carried out. Police interrogations are designed to deal with the “typical” criminal personality; extrovert, cunning, and extremely suspicious of law enforcement. When the same method is used on the opposite type of personality -introvert, gullible, and trusting of the police force- the suspect can feel easily overwhelmed and unable to cope with the stress of the interrogation.

Interrogations are usually long and conducted in a hostile environment with little sensory stimulation, no windows and only having contact with the investigators. The close, social interaction with the investigator, the uncertainty about one’s own safety and immediate situation as well as being confronted by an authority figure, make the suspect a very suggestible subject.

Investigators are allowed to present false evidence in the course of an interrogation. They can tell the accused they have DNA evidence, positive eyewitness identification or accomplice confessions. All this can be used as they please in the course of the interrogation in order to build their case. They are also allowed to use psychological manipulation; being on their side, minimizing the crime and its consequences or, conversely, maximizing them.

Suspects that finally succumb to these interrogation tactics and give a false confession have certain characteristics. Victims of false confessions are usually vulnerable people. Be it because of mental disability, low IQ, drug or alcohol use as well as withdrawal, fatigue or stress, they are put in a position where their memories are easily moldable. A low self-esteem, a lack of assertiveness as well as typically poor memory can also be determinant. 

As the length of the interrogation grows, the suspect focus changes from long-term consequences (avoiding going to jail) to short-term consequences (being allowed to leave the stressful situation, resting or seeing and talking to their loved ones) so a coerced-internalized false confession is made. At this point, the highly suggestible subject has also started doubting that what he remembers is true and starts to believe the investigators’ version of events. This version has been repeated and reworked so many times that the accused has made it their own. 

Final thoughts

The field of human memory research and false memories is fascinating one but I will not go into more depth today. I would like to see law enforcement being trained more adequately for suspect interrogations. A stronger focus should be placed on identifying and understanding a suspect’s shortcomings (like mental disability) in order to adapt their interrogation method.  

It is clear that law enforcement methodology helps to solve many cases but in the cases in which their methodology elicits a false confession, the consequences are catastrophic. It is also important that we inform ourselves about the topic and in the case of ever serving on a jury, we should require more evidence than a confession to convict an accused person. 

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Source and recommended reading:
Gudjonsson, G. (2003). The psychology of interrogations and confessions.

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