Why do people confess to crimes they haven’t committed?

Catriona Havard1 and Kim Drake2

International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research

The Open University

1Lecturer in Psychology, The Open University;  2Chartered Psychologist, University of West London

When it comes to being accused of something we haven’t done, most people may assume that they would readily say “it wasn’t me”. On that basis, it seems logical that if a person does confess to a crime, this confession should be taken at face value; why would someone say something that wasn’t in his or her best interests?

Reasons for falsely confessing can include: wanting to escape custody; protecting someone else, such as a peer, a friend or family member; and/or for some perceived positive instrumental gain, such as a lower sentence (Gudjonsson, Sigurdsson & Sigfusdottir, 2009) – this may be especially the case in the US where the plea-bargaining procedure is more common, and encourages defendants to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. There is some evidence that defendants may plead guilty to very serious charges, such as murder in the US, even though they may be innocent, to avoid harsh sentences such as the death penalty (Leo & Ofshe, 2001).

The police interview itself can also be a risk factor: during the 1980s and 90s, in the UK, several appeal cases saw convictions overturned (a total of 27 murder cases, four terrorist cases – including the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, one attempted murder, one conspiracy to rob and a sexual assault case). In all of these cases, police misconduct was found to be present, such as the use of undue pressure, fabricating or suppressing evidence, failure to provide an appropriate adult and/or comply with legal rights (see Gudjonsson, 2010). In the summer of 2014, Chris Meissner and colleagues published a systematic review of all the available research that compared accusatorial/coercive and information-gathering methods in terms of the likelihood of them producing false confessions. Their findings showed that coercive  (accusatorial) methods, such as the Reid Technique, are more likely to elicit false confessions, whilst the information gathering PEACE model of investigative interviewing,  is more likely to uncover reliable information and confessions. The primary aim of accusatorial interrogation methods is to achieve a confession from the suspect through the use of coercive tactics, such as (to name a couple) disclosing misleading evidence during the interview to the suspect, or the use of minimisation, where the interviewer shows understanding and plays down offence, suggesting reasons why the suspect had no choice but to do what they did. Slowly over time, the suspect begins to internalise the interviewer’s suggestions and doubt their own memory, coming to think that “I guess I must have done it”, before going on to signing a full written confession. Interrogation methods like this were more common in the UK, in the 1970s and 80s, and are still now being used primarily in the United States, Canada and many Asian countries. Fortunately within England and Wales, research conducted in the late 90s showed that, although police would still resort to intimidation and manipulative tactics to overcome resistance in suspects during interview, the Courts were starting to rule evidence from such interviews as inadmissible (Pearse & Gudjonsson, 1999) – so, progress was beginning to be made by the end of the 20th century. Since that time, the PEACE model of investigative interviewing is what is currently used within the UK and seems to lead to fuller, more accurate accounts.

A possible limitation of the Meissner et. al. (2014) study, however, is that it doesn’t acknowledge that some people maybe more psychologically vulnerable  (have  a tendency towards being highly suggestible or compliant) and more at risk of giving a false confession during a police interview (see Drake, Gudjonsson, Sigfusdottir & Sigurdsson, 2014). In the cases of wrongful conviction that were overturned in the late 1980s and 90s, not only was police misconduct found to be present, but suspect psychological vulnerability in the form of heightened suggestibility and compliance was also identified.  Both interrogative suggestibility (the tendency towards accepting misleading information and changing answers in response to the interviewer pressure) and compliance (simply going along with the interviewer for some perceived gain, i.e. suspects may believe they will get to go home early if they confess, or that their innocence will come out sooner of later) are serious psychological vulnerabilities– and it was the combination of the suspects being highly suggestible and compliant as well as police misconduct that resulted in the false confessions (Gudjonsson, 2010).

The Innocence Project, was set up in the US to take on cases of wrongful convictions, and tries to exonerate those held in custody by using DNA evidence. According to the Innocent project, the psychological state of the suspect, is a risk factor when it comes to false confessions and  a proportion of detainees/suspects have been found to have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, personality or mood disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder (ADHD), which can increase the suspect’s likelihood of falsely confessing as a result of heightened anxiety levels and/or attention-deficit issues/memory problems.

There is also evidence showing that suspects, who have not been diagnosed with any personality or mood disorder or learning disability, can also be vulnerable during police interview. These types of general population vulnerable suspects are at greatest risk of remaining unidentified and thus unprotected, because they display no overt signs of being psychologically vulnerable, and have not received any form of clinical diagnosis, which might flag-up to police that this suspect is vulnerable, and therefore should be given an appropriate adult support (see Young et. al., 2013). Recent research has found an association between the reporting of negative life events and both interrogative suggestibility and reported false confessions (see Drake, 2011 for a review).  In these studies, the negative life events consisted of whether or not a person has been a victim of bullying, witnessed family conflict, physical abuse, parental divorce, and/or suffered a serious illness themselves or within their family. Higher scores on the negative life event scale seemed to increase the likelihood that general population individuals are more sensitive to any pressure during police questioning, and thus less able to cope with the interview, which may lead to an increased risk of the suspect accepting misleading information.  Gudjonsson et al. (2009) also reported that, out of their sample of 11388 further education students in Iceland, 2726 individuals who had been questioned by police, of these 375 stated they had falsely confessed to police, and that being a victim of bullying, having committed a burglary and a history of substance abuse significantly predicted their false confessions.

However, not all individuals who report having experienced adverse life experiences such as the ones detailed above, are at an increased risk of suggestibility or compliance (and therefore false confessions). The suspect’s level of trait stress-sensitivity, which can manifest as anxiety, fearfulness, and nervousness, may also be important.  Drake et al (2014) investigated the role of stress-sensitivity, as reported by the levels of nervousness, fear and tension over the past 30 days, in reported false confessions.  320 participants out of 2104 further education students in Iceland, who had reported having been interrogated by police, reported making false confessions. Those scoring high in stress-sensitivity were found to be at a greater risk of false confessions; as they are more susceptible to environmental influences. These individuals thrive the most under positive, supportive, influences, however they also suffer the most under adversity; with false confessions being a direct consequence.  Stress-sensitive suspects are simply more susceptible to their environment, and more negatively affected by adversity, because they experience greater levels of physiological arousal in the face of situations perceived as adverse, including the police interview. The police interview is a novel situation, involving an interviewer asking the suspect questions and the suspect can experience isolation (see Gudjonsson et al., 2014). If a suspect is less able to cope with being questioned they may end up being more likely to falsely confess. In light of this evidence, it is possible that the experience of negative life events may only be relevant if the suspect being interviewed is predisposed to be sensitive to those negative influences.  It may therefore be a person’s sensitivity to stress, rather than negative life events, or interview pressure that is a greater indicator of the likelihood of false confession.

In the past, once a false confession had been given, it was very hard to subsequently convince the judiciary of a suspect’s innocence; especially before the advent, in the late 1980s, of DNA evidence.  This was particularly the case if it appeared the suspect had ‘specialist’ knowledge of the event in question, even though this specialist knowledge often came from leading questions within the police interview(s).  A lot of progress has been made though within the UK and also in the US, since the 80s and 90s, in terms of our understanding of what causes false confessions and how they might be minimised (the difference between the UK and US being that, in the US, the research findings are still not always being taken on board by police, and so police interviewing as a result has not made as much progress as it has here).  This is not to say though that false confessions still do not occur within the UK; indeed, Pearse and Gudjonsson (2011) noted that the PEACE model of suspect interviewing does produce confessions, so future research still needs to ascertain for sure whether the PEACE model actually does deliver in its aim – to achieve best evidence.

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