How to Convince Someone They’ve Committed a Crime

Interrogation-RoomA new study finds that providing true details mixed with a fake event convinces two in three the story was real.

From Pacific Standard

It’s not uncommon for police suspects, worn down after long hours of hostile police interrogation, to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Stranger still, a new report suggests that, with some concrete detail and the strong assertion that they did in fact commit the crime, those suspects might actually believe they’re guilty.

Motivated in part by revelations of major mistakes and outright abuse on the part of police, researchers have spent a lot of time grappling with false confessions in recent years. Among the things criminologists and psychologists have discovered, a good number of suspects in the interrogation room come to actually believe they’ve committed the crime in question—something known as a persuaded false confession. Often, those confessions result from investigators providing specific details of a crime or suggesting ways a crime may have gone down, which psychologists suspect creates a framework a person can unwittingly use to construct false memories, and the ensuing false confession. But how susceptible is the average person to that kind of thinking?

Pretty susceptible, argue Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter. After getting approval from 126 undergraduates, Shaw and Porter contacted their parents for details of emotional events from those students’ childhoods. The researchers first screened out students who’d experienced one of six events—assaulting someone, assaulting someone with a weapon, committing theft, being in an accident, being attacked by an animal, and losing a great deal of money. Next, they told 60 students who’d made it through the screening that they actually had been involved in one of the six events. To bolster their case, they incorporated details from actual events into a description of fictional happenings.

In three sessions, interviewers used methods known to elicit false confessions, such as claiming parents had told the researchers about events or telling students—again falsely—that “most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try.”

Shaw and Porter chose a stringent definition for what constitutes a false memory. So even if someone said they remembered a fictitious story happening, it would only count as a false memory if they could remember at least 10 specific details. Despite such strong requirements, 44 students reported believing the fictional events had really happened. That fraction was about the same regardless of the event’s nature—21 of the 30 students who’d been told they committed some kind of crime and 23 of the 30 who’d been told about non-criminal events fit Shaw and Porter’s definition of false memory-bearing. Including true, personal details likely contributed to those numbers by “providing a foundation upon which to build false memories,” the authors write.

“Our finding that young adults generated rich false memories of committing criminal acts during adolescence supports the notion that false confessions and gross confabulations can take place within interview settings,” Shaw and Porter write, noting the large fraction of wrongful convictions that result from false confessions. “The kind of research presented here is essential in the quest to help prevent memory-related miscarriages of justice.”