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The Psychology of False Confessions

Why would any innocent person falsely confess to committing a crime?

“He’s clearly guilty—he even confessed!”

While popular understanding may suggest that innocent people simply do not confess to crimes (“I would never confess to doing something that I did not actually do!”), the surprising fact is that false confessions happen—and perhaps more frequently than we would like to believe.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been over 2,500 exonerations since 1989, representing more than 23,950 years that innocent Americans spent in prison. Surprisingly, approximately 12% of these defendants had falsely confessed to committing the crime. This indicates not only that false confessions happen, but that hundreds of people have falsely confessed to crimes that they did not commit.

According to social psychologist Dr. Saul Kassin, false confessions can be categorized into three general types: voluntary false confessions, persuaded (or internalized) false confessions, and compliant false confessions.

Voluntary False Confessions

Voluntary false confessions are explained by the internal psychological states or needs of the confessor or by external pressure brought to bear on the confessor by someone other than the police or someone in authority. Voluntary false confessions are frequently attributed to underlying psychological or psychiatric disorders. For example, individuals may feel compelled to falsely confess out of a desire for attention, because they desire to punish themselves, or because they are genuinely out of touch with reality. However, voluntary false confessions may also arise from completely rational motives: for example, out of a desire to protect the true perpetrator.

Interestingly, police tend to be more skeptical of voluntary false confessions than of confessions induced by the police, despite the fact that the former represents a “truer” confession in the sense that it was made freely and without pressure or interference from the state.

Persuaded False Confessions

Persuaded (or internalized) false confessions occur when interrogation tactics cause an innocent suspect to doubt his memory and he genuinely becomes persuaded—whether temporarily or permanently—that it is more likely than not that he committed the crime, despite having no memory of committing it.

This raises the question: How can an interrogator possibly convince an innocent person that he or she is guilty? Wouldn’t the suspect know whether or not he or she committed the crime?

Persuaded false confessions tend to result from long and intense interrogations that may include:

  • Repeated accusations that the suspect committed the crime
  • Adamant discrediting of the suspect’s denials (for example, by saying that the denial is contradicted by known facts)
  • Fabrications of evidence of guilt (for example, by saying that an eyewitness said that the suspect committed the crime, when no such eyewitness actually exists)
  • Eventually, an offer to resolve the cognitive dissonance experienced by the suspect (for example, by saying, “it’s possible you repressed the memory of doing it”)

Studies have shown that we may be much more susceptible to making a persuaded false confession than we realize. One such experiment, conducted by Kassin, involved having students typing on keyboards. He told the students beforehand that the system had a glitch and told them not to hit the “Alt” key, because doing so would crash the computer. What the students did not know was that each computer was already pre-programmed to crash, without the “Alt” key being pressed. After each computer crashed, the student was then accused of pressing the “Alt” key.

At first, all of the students denied hitting the “Alt” key. However, once Kassin introduced a few variables (based on actual police interrogation tactics), the students began to (falsely) confess. For example, when students were told that a witness saw them hit the “Alt” key, those students confessed at more than double the rate of students paired with witnesses that said they had not seen anything. Some students internalized their (false) guilt so deeply that they even came up with excuses for hitting the “Alt” key, such as “I hit the wrong key with the side of my hand.”

Compliant False Confessions

Compliant false confessions are given to escape a stressful situation, avoid punishment, or gain a promised or implied reward. The most notable thing about a compliant false confession is that it is made knowingly: the suspect admits guilt with the knowledge that he is innocent and that what he says is false.

Compliant false confessions may be obtained through physical pressure (for example, torture) but can also be elicited through psychological pressure. For example, a police interrogator may try to convince a suspect that he will inevitably be found guilty in court if he does not confess. Even though the suspect knows that he did not commit the crime, the entire trial and evidentiary process might be so foreign and frightening to him that he believes the interrogator. At the same time, the interrogator might try to convince the suspect that confessing will lead to much more lenient outcomes.

Even in the absence of coercive threats and promises, stress and a desire to escape the interrogation may also lead to false confessions. Custodial interrogations are inherently stressful and unpleasant experiences, and a suspect may reach a point where he is willing to falsely confess just to stop the confrontation.

Another interesting possibility is that sometimes compliant false confessions may be given, ironically, due to the suspect’s confidence in his or her innocence, coupled with his or her faith in the criminal justice system. In Kassin’s “Alt” key study discussed above, students who were told that every keystroke had been recorded were much more likely to falsely confess. This is interesting because, if anything, each student should have been less likely to confess given that none of them actually hit the “Alt” key. However, it is possible that these students confessed just to get out of the conversation, persuaded that once the server records were examined, that they would be receiving an apology. This would be similar to a suspect who, upon being told that DNA evidence was being collected from the crime scene, decides to say whatever the police want him to say because he figures that the evidence would later clear them once the truth comes out.

What this research tells us is not only should we abandon the idea that no innocent person in their right mind would confess to a crime, but that in some situations, it is rational—or at least extremely understandable—to falsely confess.


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