Jan 20 2015

False Confessions

When a suspect confesses to a crime, that is a powerfully persuasive piece of evidence. People assume (reasonably) that no one would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, extrapolating from the conviction that they would never do so themselves.

Of course there are legal reasons why someone accused of a crime would confess to guilt, in order to plea to a lesser charge or sentence and avoid the risk of a much more serious sentence. It is an unfortunate reality that innocent people can be wrongly convicted, and therefore an innocent person might confess in order to avoid the worst consequences of such a wrongful conviction.

Would, however, someone confess not to secure a plea bargain but simply because they are being aggressively interrogated? New research suggests that it is possible to form false memories of having committed crimes that one never committed. This is not surprising given all the previous memory research showing  how easy it is to form false memories.

In this study college students were interviewed and asked to recall two events, one of which was a true event from their teen years, and another was a false event invented by the researchers. The false events were either of the subject committing a crime, or of an emotional event, such as being attacked by a dog. The researchers had first contacted the caregivers of each of the subjects and gave them a series of questions about the subject, so the researchers were armed with details about their teen years. The false stories had true details within them to give them more plausibility.

When asked to recall each of the two events (one true, one false) 21/30 (71%) of the subjects were able to “recall” the fake crime, including detailed descriptions and reenactments, and reported high confidence in the memory. They therefore internalized the fake crime as a false memory. A similar number, 76%, of the subjects came to believe the false emotional story.

The students were able to report more details for the true events, and had a higher confidence, but the recall and confidence in the false stories were also high.

Of course, this is one smallish study. Psychological studies like this are always contrived to some extent. This is more of a proof of concept than an indication of what will happen in real life situations. It is in line with a great deal of research, however, showing how easy it is to form false memories.

The implications of this research, if it holds up, are obvious. In any situation where someone is being interrogated or simply questioned it is possible for the interview process to form false memories, even of a crime the subject never committed.

This is already conventional wisdom in medicine. We are taught not to ask leading questions or suggest symptoms to patients. Also, if the patient has given their medical history to others previously this may have contaminated their history with suggested details. Since we often have the experience of multiple people taking the history from the same patient, and recording that history, we see first hand how histories can evolve with the retelling.

The key insight here is that memories are narratives, not just objectively stored facts. The narrative drives the details, more than the other way around. Memories are malleable, and will shift in order to support the narrative. This can happen even in the most benign setting, such as telling your history to a concerned health care professional who only wants to help you.

Imagine the process of a hostile interrogation. The interrogators are trying to trip you up, confuse you, and force mistakes. They make you tell your story over and over, and try to force your story into a narrative in which you are guilty. The assumption is that this procedure will only work if you are truly guilty. This is a naive assumption, however, and goes against decades of memory and witness research.

A similar problem exists when interrogating children who are potential victims. Young children may not fully distinguish reality from fantasy, and may also have an incredible desire to give the “right answer” and please adults. Any leading questions therefore invalidate the outcome.

I previously discussed the Reid technique of interrogation, which is popular in the US. This technique provides the suspect with two narratives, one worse than the other but both involving guilt. The goal is to make them confess to the lesser scenario, which is still a confession of guilt. The assumption (almost certainly wrong) is that an innocent person cannot be made to confess. In light of this and other research, the Reid technique should be questioned, if not abandoned.

An alternate technique is the PEACE technique which is not confrontational. It is based on the premise that lying requires a much greater cognitive load than telling the truth. Interrogators are not looking for a confession, they simply circle back through the suspect’s story over and over to see if the details hold up.

The increased cognitive load of lying seems to be a reasonable premise and a valid basis for interrogation techniques. The assumption that the guilty will act anxious or guilty, and the innocent cannot be made to confess are not valid assumptions and should be abandoned as premises for interrogation.

Given that the stakes for individuals can be extremely high, this is an area that deserves greater research. It also seems reasonable, given the current state of the research, that policy should err on the side of protecting the innocent from wrong conviction.

In general the research on human biases, memory, and the tendency to favor certain narratives indicates that we are always one step away from an outright witch hunt. The witch hunt is the psychological pathway of least resistance, and we need checks and procedures in place to guard against them.

This latest research adds further to this conclusion.

33 responses so far

33 thoughts on “False Confessions”

  1. edwardBe says:

    “Are memories are malleable, and with shift in order to support the narrative.” I think you mean, “Memories are malleable, and will shift in order to support the narrative.”

  2. Ladadadada says:

    There has also been some research into better lie detection: https://www.lightbluetouchpaper.org/2015/01/04/to-freeze-or-not-to-freeze/

    It would be interesting to see how well fidgeting analysis holds up in the face of leading questions.

  3. John Danley says:

    The Central Park Five phenomenon. The power of suggestion works like erosion in reverse as circumstantial evidence begins to conveniently appear.

  4. Fair Persuasion says:

    I will assume the subjects and their caregivers were paid to complete the study about the events in the lives of 11 to 14 year old teens. There were no harmful consequences to confabulation of the details of the subjects’ lives, so everyone fiddled with this folly. I would hope that the sixty subjects were properly debriefed so that there is residual effects of their false criminality. What is most difficult in memory problems like this is that the subjects have had experiences with local police by this age. They most likely engaged in angry family arguments about money or the agendas of other family members. Right or wrong is in the eye of that culture’s beholder. P.S. Beware of mind readers.

  5. BillyJoe7 says:

    SN: “Since we often have the experience of multiple people taking the history from the same patient, and recording that history, we see first hand how histories can evolve with the retelling”

    I wonder if you have an example of a patient who initially gives a pretty vague history of the symptoms of his illness and ends up giving a classic history of the illness with which he is finally diagnosed?
    What implications would this have for a doctor accused of delayed diagnosis causing a patient’s resultant disability or death? And I wonder if there any evidence that this has occurred?

  6. Jared Olsen says:

    This makes sense, given the research of Loftus and others, but I find it hard to swallow that somebody
    could confabulate a memory of a crime that happened within a short period of time
    (say a year or less). I gather most interrogations would be regarding recent crimes.

  7. BillyJoe7 says:

    Yeah, I reckon it would be pretty difficult to convince me that I murdered someone yesterday.

  8. Jared Olsen says:

    BJ, I haven’t read the paper (obviously), but it’s possible they’re talking about cold cases
    (Is that the term?). I think Steve would have mentioned it though, if that were so. He’s pretty careful!

  9. jared – the research did not involve specific legal cases, just a contrived laboratory simulation. These were college students asked about events from age 11-14, so 4-10 years earlier.

    The implications are not limited to cold cases. It may be six months or a year, for example before a suspect is brought in on a major crime. Also, individuals may have been involved with a crime, but did not “pull the trigger,” as it were. The precise details of events occurring months earlier, but affecting guilt vs innocence, may be subject to false memories.

  10. Jared Olsen says:

    Thanks for the feedback Steve.
    My comment was badly worded; I was aware this was a lab study on students, not a real world experiment. My intent was to extrapolate to the interrogation room.
    I *do* believe memories can be ‘inplanted’ 4–10 yrs after the fact. I just question the validy of this pertaining to forced confessions of recent (serious) crimes.
    Of course I’m not arguing with you, just the implications
    of the paper.

  11. tmac57 says:

    Jared Olsen- “This makes sense, given the research of Loftus and others, but I find it hard to swallow that somebody
    could confabulate a memory of a crime that happened within a short period of time
    (say a year or less). I gather most interrogations would be regarding recent crimes.”

    There are many false confessions documented of recent crimes (those confessions being of recently committed crimes that is).

    Here is one example that was part of a This American Life episode called ‘Confessions’ . This is the transcript of the show (the podcast is also available). Scroll down to Act One ‘Kim possible’. The murder was committed approximately 3 months previous to Kim’s confession acquired through the Reid technique:

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/507/transcript

  12. tmac57 says:

    Probably one of the most infamous cases involved the so-called Norfolk Four, where four coerced confessions result in convictions of innocent men. Frontline did a documentary on it in 2010:

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/the-confessions/

    The first false confession was obtained in only two days of the murder.

  13. karenkilbane says:

    Cognitive biases and memories that play tricks on us with our without interrogation have been exhaustively studied and reported upon. It is quite clear people can think one way today and another way tomorrow, remember something one way today and another way tomorrow.

    So it is quite puzzling to me why so much of our psychological research is reliant upon self reporting and interview questions. How can we rely on the validity of such studies when we know how unreliable human cognition is?

    Some psychological research is based upon the answers people give to how they would handle a potential future situation. Conclusions are based upon those answers as if the people would absolutely do what they say they would do if the conditions actually came true in the future. Due to what we know about the vagaries of human cognition it seems highly unlikely things would shake out exactly as people say it would.

    Similarly, self reporting is accepted to reflect what the self reporters say about themselves in an enduring kind of way. Research conclusions that rely upon self reporting and interview questions are accepted as enduring and valid in spite of the fact that we know how changeable cognition is.

    The current puzzling hodgepodge of psychological theories of personality maintains that the human personality has an enduring ‘character’ and enduring mental states of temperament and mood that cause a person to behave fairly consistently throughout their lifetime. This to me reflects the disconnect psychology has between how it understands the relationship between cognition and behavior. The idea of enduring temperament and mood states portends that people are consistent in their cognitive output. This is why psychological research accepts at face value what people say in self reports or interviews as accurate and enduring. This is why interrogation techniques do not have to consider the context specific nature of human cognition.

    The fact is cognitive biases and false memories tell us that human cognition is context specific and almost always changes when the context changes. Internal changes pertaining to any given context should also be given weight like hunger, fatigue, emotional state, learning that occurs over time, etc.

    How a person self reports or answers a question in a given moment in time reflects that person in that given moment, period.

    Our psychological research will not reflect the context specific nature of human cognition until we develop an accurate and uniformly agreed upon theory of personality.

    Without a verifiable and mutually agreed upon theory of personality psychological researchers will also be free to supply whatever they want as their narrative for how cognition links to behaviors simply because they can.

    This statement, “…lying requires a much greater cognitive load than telling the truth,” reflects so many like it that are arbitrary statements of alleged fact about how people think and behave based upon assumptions and generalizations that have no verifiable basis. Assumptions and generalizations that have no way to be verified, even if they might have some truth to them should not be allowed to support a psychological theory or practice. That is not good science.

    We need a biologically accurate, verifiable, mutually agreed upon theory of the human personality. I believe such a theory would be applicable for criminal interrogation and that it would also help a great deal to invalidate alternative healers from using current psychological theories to prove their belief systems. Currently alternative healers and anybody who wants to can cut and paste from highly questionable psychological research that is currently considered valid to prop up their own theories and validate their own research.

  14. steve12 says:

    “So it is quite puzzling to me why so much of our psychological research is reliant upon self reporting and interview questions. How can we rely on the validity of such studies when we know how unreliable human cognition is?”

    See the entire field of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

    Ditto for the rest of your post.

    Really, I don’t for the life of me understand how someone SO unaware of the state of the literature can carry on criticizing said literate while simultaneously refusing to acquaint themselves with that same literature.

    It boggles my mind.

  15. Jared Olsen says:

    Tmac, that’s a helluva thing–the Kim story. Thanks.
    I’ve changed my mind, you’ve convinced me.
    Seems our memory is pretty flawed in more ways than I’d like to consider!

  16. karenkilbane says:

    Steve 12 – Is cognitive psychology allowed to just dismiss all the rest of psychology because it doesn’t like it any more? Seems to me the whole field of psychology needs to coordinate with one another and step up its game because the applications of old psychological theory are still out there quite alive and well as evidenced by this article. How do we disentangle all of the inaccurate psychological information from the accurate that still exist virulently in real life applications? There is an entire DSM filled with old school psychological research. Is that considered irrelevant when it is the bible for treating the entire American population of their alleged personality disorders. What is your vote on that?

  17. steve12 says:

    “Steve 12 – Is cognitive psychology allowed to just dismiss all the rest of psychology because it doesn’t like it any more? Seems to me the whole field of psychology needs to coordinate with one another and step up its game because the applications of old psychological theory are still out there quite alive and well as evidenced by this article.”

    You can insist we are a monolith all you want. We are not. I’m highly critical of much that goes on in social psychology, e.g. It does not affect my field’s work. It has to be judged on it’s own merit. We are not a football team. You also think that one tiny part of psychology, personality, defines the field. Nonsense.

    Every piece of work must be judged on it’s own vis a vis the larger understanding. Not sure how one can do that when they lack
    a. Understanding of the individual work
    and
    b. Understanding of the bigger picture.

    Yet here you are….

    “How do we disentangle all of the inaccurate psychological information from the accurate that still exist virulently in real life applications?”

    You look for converging evidence, the most powerful thing in science really. Some of the self report stuff stands up, some does not. You must take each individual study into account. Note the lack of sufficiently vague as to be meaningless nonsense in this approach. No sweeping themes. No BS.

    “There is an entire DSM filled with old school psychological research. Is that considered irrelevant when it is the bible for treating the entire American population of their alleged personality disorders. What is your vote on that?”

    Again, vague nonsense. Old school? There are seminal studies form the 50s that stand up. Many don’t.

    You have to have SPECIFIC knowledge of what you want to say, not vague and sweeping dismissals. This isn’t some political essay.

    Again, the most interesting phenomena here is your enduring hubris in the face of a complete and utter lack of knowledge. It’s stunning.

  18. Jared Olsen says:

    Karen, I’m by no means fluent in the literature of cognitive science or psychology, and I agree it’s a somewhat fuzzy
    Science. But I think the field is well aware of that, and barring
    mind reading technology I think the paradigms used are as valid as can be expected.

  19. tmac57 says:

    Jared Olsen- I agree, the Kim story is really eye opening. I found the Norfolk Four (that I referenced above) even more shocking and upsetting. One would hope that our criminal justice system would get it right 100% of the time, but that just isn’t feasible. But it would seem that certain actors in the system are less interested in seeing justice done, than getting and keeping a high conviction record and thwarting any and all attempts to right an injustice. Sad 🙁

    BTW kudos to you for changing your mind when new information was introduced. That shows integrity.

  20. Jared Olsen says:

    Thanks tmac ☺
    Not sure any kudos is warranted. I change my mind often coz most of what I say
    is crap!

  21. M_Morgan says:

    Steven, that’s a good analysis, but superficial. I think you will probably find this site is full or witch hunts in the various threads to which I contributed, which is not a glowing reference. You have too many trolls

    To the issue, sure it is a narrative of a life, but have look at this to see how it works http://sdrv.ms/1a4HBbk Your comments throughout your site continue the tendency to superficiality.

    What would be best, is to get away from your nice Homunculus brain, with its little man in there making decision and following the narrative, and into what mind actually “is”, here http://sdrv.ms/1a4HBbk

    As I have said before, but some time ago, and you may have missed it. The brain is automatic old chum, it automatically represents the rest of your anatomy. How about getting into site receptors and effectors across anatomy and their diverse functional relations with a world around them, and away from “magic in the brain”. Then we can make some progress, because you “scientists” are supposedly “at the top of the tree” on these matters but in actually, that supposed “top” is all about conformity, self-promotion, sales, tenure, and push, push, push the usual lines with the usual huge gaps filled by magic or waffle.

    Personally I don’t care if you learn some depth to go with the superficiality of the coverage in this thread, but it would be “better” for the world to “improve” by knowledge rather than errant guesswork, so we live in hope.

  22. M_Morgan says:

    Steve 12, I read your comment with much amusement. “Understanding of the bigger picture” that’s a good one from a consistent troll in past threads.

    I remember your ambit rubbish about not even reading my work because its “not even wrong” but as you didn’t read it or provide a single comment about a single piece of it, who know where you are coming from? So I made the assumption from the consistent smears without ANY details from my book contested. Please don’t pretend to be comprehensive, unless you want to make me laugh.

    You actually work as a “scientist”?. I never got that impression, or saw any details about that. It looked to me, and still does, that you and other trolls like BillyJoe, I recall, are pretending to have knowledge and authority.

    As an aside, I recall BillJoe saying something about having a crisis in his past to do with religion or some such nonsense nobody needs to know about, and here you are going on about religion – the easy mark, the easy kick. Oh dear! You follow suit, am I right?

    Read this and be educated, “scientist” (or dude with heaps of time on his hands with nothing better to do than camp here). http://sdrv.ms/1a4HBbk

    More classics from your post –

    “You look for converging evidence” – You don’t look at all, you camp here.

    “the most interesting phenomena here is your enduring hubris in the face of a complete and utter lack of knowledge.” That would be you to a tee. Look chum, just be a good humble bean, and not a supposed “authority”.

  23. M_Morgan says:

    Doc, before I go for this quarter, I don’t know whether I’m glad or not that you didn’t mention Free Will (and none of your followers have). Its such an overblow abstract idea as presented by “philosophers”, and at least you didn’t fall into that trap by raising it. In fact it is couched in terms so that only a “god” could have it.

    Actually in the non-abstract meaning, it is just the capacity to direct oneself using the comprehensive capacities set out in my book for reasoning. Look to anatomy first, not brain. We have a comprehensive structure to form concepts or “think”.

    Scientists dealing with Libet, including yourself, are a sad blight. Obviously we cannot be aware of anything until receptors are processed – self-stimulation OR stimulation of receptors by a a world BOTH take time for awareness to arise. Do scientists honesty think that awareness just happens and we then work backwards to “rationalize” it as a “fiction”. That’s the story in Brain Story by the BBC, followed religiously by others as if a preceding SUBCONSCIOUS (more magic) determines what we do.

    Doc, there aint no SUBCONSCIOUS involved. There is no doubt subtle and obvious processing, and the subtle by definition escapes our attention, but the processing is of real sites with real moves and real input to get them processed after a delay of say 100 or 200 milliseconds depending on the site – you know those delays, surely Doc? Your supposed subconscious drives are real drives by a real anatomy, and the processing is automatic.

    But you haven’t put it together because you are stuck on the magic Homunculus and you think a brain is magical, rather than a whole anatomy being COMPREHENSIVE. To the piece, well, those poor students, followers, pliable, manipulable, like almost everyone. And do you know why such a stable anatomy with comprehensive features relying on delay to know that they exist (awareness is how we know we exist as functional anatomies duly represented automatically) can screw up its understanding of itself so easily?

    Well, it pretty simple again, but put your thinking cap on, again. Its because during delay for ANY awareness we are open to being affected by a world around us. Doc, you and everyone else is an AUTOMATON at all times! You move, THEN you are aware of it (real quick, though). You are open to being read and led by others even without looking at a Libet scan. People are mostly regular, and they can be read without scans, but they can also decide to do something that departs from the trajectory of a scan, sometimes. Hypnotists use it to lead you into a trance that takes you away from your own moves and lines of processing, to favour those under persuasion.

    You and your company here should go into advertising – you are all adept at interrupting readers’ processing to divert them to errant abstracts. Its important to be clear old bean, not a manipulator.

  24. Jared Olsen says:

    I think I hear crickets in the dark night. It’s lonely out there…

  25. Sheesh… I love reading this site because I can learn so much, even from the comments. Then M_MORGAN comes along and mucks it all up. So many words saying so little; between the gross verbosity and patronisation, I’m really not at all sure what point is trying to be made. (Something about all science being wrong and the brain being some automatic “thing”? I don’t get it.) And all the ranting about superficiality is highly ironic, coming from so many words saying nothing.

    Baby, did you forget to take your meds?

  26. Bruce says:

    Jared,

    “I change my mind often coz most of what I say is crap!”

    Having the humility to understand when you are wrong and accept that others might have more and better insight than you is definitely something we all need to aspire to more.

    The trick is figuring out when others really have insight or if they are just trying to press some ridiculous pet idea that only fits their own flawed internal logic…

  27. Jared Olsen says:

    Agreed Bruce. It’s a mighty fine line!

  28. Jared Olsen says:

    Shit, I hit submit too soon again..
    I think I know what your last paragraph is referring to.
    Subtlety is a virtue!

  29. steve12 says:

    M_Morgan:

    I read your comment, and I have to say that you have a point. How can I criticize your book when I haven’t read it?.

    Now that I have read it, I have to apologize. You have single-handedly solved all the problems in physics and neuroscience. I have to say, I am shocked and astonished. YOu have single-handedly figured out what thousands of people over hundreds of years could not. Very elegant and explains it all.

    How did you do this on your own?

  30. BillyJoe7 says:

    tmac,

    “Probably one of the most infamous cases involved the so-called Norfolk Four, where four coerced confessions result in convictions of innocent men. Frontline did a documentary on it in 2010:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/the-confessions/
    The first false confession was obtained in only two days of the murder”

    I haven’t looked at your first link, but this one is pretty poor evidence for the hypothesis that someone can be convinced to <believe that they committed a murder they didn’t commit.

    Throughout the 90 minute program, there is only one almost throw-away line where one of the four says that he even came to believe he was there – not that he committed the murder, just that he came to believe he was there. Later towards the end of the program there is a voice-over that goes beyond that, but this is simply unbelievable because if he did say he came to believe he committed the crime they would surely have shown him saying exactly that.

    Remember also that he his evidence was instrumental in the conviction of another of the accused, so he may have been motivated to partly excuse himself for giving false evidence by saying that he came to actually believe he was there – and, again, not that he came to believe that he actually committed the murder. And not two days after the murder.

    The program produces good evidence that accused individuals can be forced to admit to murders they didn’t commit – and there’s nothing really new in that – but not that they can be convinced to actually believe that they committed a murder they didn’t commit.

  31. BillyJoe7 says:

    Marcus,

    “I recall BillJoe saying something about having a crisis in his past to do with religion”

    Not satisfied with being a crank – and a pretty p1$$ poor run-of-the mill one at that – I see you are now resorting to lying. I’ve never has a crisis of religion, I simply gave away strongly and fervently held religious beliefs when the evidence was overwhelming that they were false. You could actually take a lesson from that, but I guess it’s harder to give up beliefs that you’ve actually made up yourself.

  32. steve12 says:

    I dunno, BJ7 – hvae you read Marcus’ book? I thought it was nonsense until I read it…

  33. tmac57 says:

    BillyJoe7- I think that it’s true that most of those involved were simply just worn down and coerced into confessions, (which many people also just refuse to believe can happen). But I remembered from reading and hearing about this case from several sources that Joe Dick had become convinced for a time that he was guilty. I found this from a 2007 NYT’s article about the case, where the reporter interviewed Joe Dick while he was in prison:

    Dick did not have Detective Ford or any other detective breathing down his neck when he testified for the state against his two Navy colleagues. When I asked him what it was like to sit on the witness stand, knowingly fabricating a story that could have resulted in their executions, Dick let out an audible sigh that seemed to say, “I know you’re not going to believe this,” and, after an extended silence, replied, “It didn’t cross my mind that I was lying; I believed what I was saying was true.” By the time he became a witness for the state, Dick explained, he had convinced himself he was guilty. Police officers, prosecutors and even his own lawyer insisted that he had committed the crime. “They messed up my mind and made me believe something that wasn’t true,” he said.

    I guess you could speculate that he was just trying to save face here but all we can go on is what he actually said, not what we want to make of it. Another defendant named Danial Williams did not go as far as Joe Dick, but did make this statement:

    Now 35 and serving a life sentence at the Sussex II State Prison in Waverly, Va., Williams, like the other Norfolk Four defendants, had no prior criminal record. But he said in an interview (and in an affidavit) that Ford treated him like a criminal from the outset, poking him in the chest, yelling in his face, calling him a liar and telling him, falsely, that he’d failed a polygraph test and that a witness saw him go into the apartment. The police got him to “second-guess” his memory, Williams said. “They wear you down to the point that you’re exhausted. I just wanted the questioning to end.”

    Note the phrase “second guess his memory”. That is a just cognitive step away from becoming willing to go so far as to concede that he might not be telling the truth. I am not so sure that there is always a bright line between knowing that you are innocent of something and being unsure, after you have been mentally beaten down, and fed information subtly until it gets incorporated into a narrative that you are being encouraged to create.
    It’s really difficult to accept that a person could be manipulated into believing that they might have committed a crime that they did not do, but then again, it has also been told to me many times by many people that “I just don’t believe that an innocent person would ever confess to a crime they didn’t commit” because they believe in their hearts that they would never do such a thing…and we know for certain that that happens all the time.

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