Why would anyone admit to a crime if innocent? It betrays our basic instinct for self-preservation, not to mention basic common sense.
The reasons are complex, involving characteristics of the false confessor and the tactics of police interrogation. Although counterintuitive, many of us are susceptible.
Take Miguel, for example, an 18-year-old man I evaluated after he was arrested for burglary. The police had a security video of the break-in and were able to identify a couple of the intruders. Miguel’s childhood friend Peter who was one. Miguel was not. Walking home with Peter, both were arrested as suspects.
During the interview with detectives, Miguel confessed to being a member of the crew that broke into a building, only to recant his statement immediately. It was too late: he was charged with felony burglary.
Miguel’s lawyer asked me to evaluate Miguel and opine as whether his client was vulnerable to a false confession. He described Miguel as “kinda simple.”
Miguel’s fragility as a person was palpable. He was small in stature, looking younger than his actual age, with an awkward gait. He looked befuddled and had a limited vocabulary that telegraphed his limited intellectual functioning. Miguel was in over his head.
The psychological testing confirmed my observations. On a standard intelligence test, Miguel obtained an IQ score of 57, which placed him at the 0.2 percentile, meaning that 99.8% of his peers scored higher than he on this test. He had defective reasoning abilities and an impaired memory.
Given the legal question, whether his confession was induced by police interrogation, I administered the Gudjansson Suggestibility Scale, an ingenious instrument that tests for psychological suggestibility, i.e., the degree of gullibility and tendency to conform. I asked Miguel to recall details of a short story. He then was given misleading feedback on his recall accuracy, and asked to reconsider his responses. Miguel altered many of his previously correct answers, revealing his suggestibility.
Next, I measured Miguel’s compliance, which is different from suggestibility in that it does not require a private acceptance of the proposal, just submission. I also had a family member complete the questionnaire with Miguel in mind. Both answered the questions similarly, rating Miguel as highly compliant.
The assistant district attorney took note of Miguel’s limitations as well as to the lack of factual evidence of his guilt (he was not in the video.) He offered a plea bargain. Miguel pled to misdemeanor trespassing and was given probation.
So what set of circumstances conspired to lead Miguel, and others, to falsely confess to a crime?
- Intellectual deficits: Limited cognitive ability is a factor that contributes to the making of false confessions. But it’s not the only one.
- Degree of suggestibility: The more a person is suggestible and readily influenced, the more likely he or she will succumb to interrogation techniques.
- Tendency towards compliance: Individual who are prone to consciously embrace others’ assertions, regardless of inner beliefs, are at risk.
- Avoidance of conflict: Individuals who are suggestible and compliant and avoid confrontations. They are likely to have particular difficulties asserting themselves with authority figures and capitulate during interrogations. This is true for cognitively normal and impaired individuals.
- Those with low frustration tolerance: Assuming a myopic perspective, these individuals might make untrue statements just to extricate themselves from the tension and fear generated by aggressive questioning.
- Deceptive or manipulative interrogation techniques: Most interrogations are not investigative: the interviewers assume guilt, trust their intuitions and believe they can spot a liar. But research reveals that police are no better than college students in detecting deception. Confidently, they use standard techniques to coax an individual into a confession. I watched the video of Miguel’s interview. One detective peppered him with confrontations. Another implored him, “Just tell us the truth,” so they could then recommend leniency to the court (a good-cop bad-cop approach.) They implied that, if he cooperated, he would be able to go home.
- The presentation of fake evidence: The detectives lied to Miguel, saying they had video evidence of his presence in the building, which was factually untrue. Police are allowed to lie during interrogations.
- Vulnerability to the Memory Distrust Syndrome: Individuals with some of the characteristics noted above – suggestible, interpersonally compliant, conflict averse – are prone to distrust their own memories and internalize that of the interrogators. This transformation in personal memory is referred to as the Memory Distrust Syndrome. It is especially true with someone with cognitive deficits. Like Miguel.
- Long periods of isolation: Some interrogations last hours, with many only thirty minutes. Regardless, most of us need a sense of belonging and safety to function without psychological distress. The incommunicado setting of an interrogation, the unfamiliar and intimidating milieu of a law enforcement setting, and the stress of the presumption of guilt by detectives, provides a context that leaves some people susceptible to falsely confessing to a crime.
- The serviceability of the Fundamental Attribution Error: Recall that Miguel pleaded guilty to trespassing. Why wouldn’t an innocent person opt for a trial instead? Jurors find confessions to be powerful proof of guilt, even when presented with evidence that the confession was coerced, and a conviction would be illogical, given all the forensic evidence. This is likely the result of the Fundamental Attribution Error: a tendency to overestimate personal (subjective) attributions for a person’s actions while strongly underestimating situational factors. When confessions are proffered, highly pertinent situational factors are minimized by jurors and seen as background “noise,” while the defendant’s behavior- his confession- is perceived as “music” that resonates in the foreground as the causal factor.
The take away from all this? False confessions are likely the result of a distinct context (usually an interrogation) involving particular characteristics of a defendant (e.g., high suggestibility), together with a set of interviewing techniques designed to elicit a confession from truly guilty suspects, but which also ensnares a particular set of innocent ones.