Public perception is severely skewed by the media’s portrayal of police investigations through television shows and movies. Viewers believe there will always be clear and damning evidence pointing to a suspect’s guilt. Unfortunately, crime scenes often lack these “necessary” pieces of evidence. Therefore, police must conduct interviews and interrogations to narrow a suspect list and arrest and charge an individual or individuals with a crime.
However, there is a warehouse of psychology research on confirmation bias, which suggests that once people form an impression, they unwittingly seek, interpret, and create behavioral data that verify it. Individuals who succumb to confirmation bias will place extreme confidence in the accuracy of their judgments. Research has demonstrated that confirmation bias infiltrates general criminal justice proceedings and is a severe problem. Prejudices, preconceptions, beliefs, and expectations are inherent in an individual's decision-making processes.
Whether beliefs are accurate or not, mental health professionals can educate those involved in the legal system on how beliefs shape information processing and interpretation. Scientific research on interrogations and confessions has provided a helpful framework for those in decision-making positions to utilize while scrutinizing the reliability of confession evidence. An empirical understanding of the psychology of confessions and police interrogations would undoubtedly aid in creating an extra layer of protection for vulnerable individuals involved in the legal system.
A confession is an admission of guilt followed by a statement declaring what, how, and why a confessor has committed a crime. In a court of law, confession evidence is highly regarded but fallible. However, previous research has demonstrated that confessions are so potent that, once taken, they often lead police to close investigations, bias lay and expert witnesses, and lead prosecutors, judges, and juries to presume the confessor guilty—frequently resulting in wrongful convictions.
Police interrogations, which are accusatorial, are strategically designed to elicit confessions from subjects by increasing the anticipated stress and anxiety associated with denials while reducing the fear associated with confessing. Using various techniques, interrogators will directly confront a suspect with accusations of guilt, reinforced by claims of evidence that may be true or fabricated, to corroborate accusations while ignoring any denials or objections made by the suspect. In addition, they will incorporate themes that minimize the severity of the crime and provide moral justification for the suspect’s actions to elicit a confession.
The manipulative and sometimes deceitful tactics leave vulnerable and innocent suspects at risk, yet they are a staple of United States police interrogation practices. Recognizing these potential dangers, the Supreme Court has stated that police interrogation is “inherently coercive” (Miranda v. Arizona, 1966, p. 533). Yet, despite the psychological pressure and coercion involved in interrogations, confessions—even those made by innocent suspects—are routinely trusted and offered as conclusive evidence of guilt.
“In regards to this ‘confession’ that I made last night, I want to make it very clear that I’m very doubtful of the verity of my statements because they were made under the pressures of stress, shock, and extreme exhaustion.” Amanda Knox
While the exact number of false confessions is unknown, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, in 2018, the total number of exonerations of innocent defendants in the United States was 2,156, and 12% of these involved a false confession. Furthermore, the Innocence Project found that more than one out of every four exonerated people, based on DNA evidence, had made a false confession. However, because these statistics do not include cases dismissed or defendants who accepted a plea bargain, these numbers most likely represent only a fraction of false confessions.
Empirical research has highlighted characteristics that leave an innocent suspect vulnerable to falsely confessing. For example, juveniles and individuals with intellectual impairments or psychopathology may be more susceptible to police pressure in an interrogation. Research further suggests that individuals high in suggestibility, anxiety, and compliance are more vulnerable to confessing. Certain contextual elements may also lead suspects to confess falsely. Some of these contextual elements are common custodial interrogation strategies. They include long periods of isolation in a small interrogation room, sleep deprivation, confrontation with accusatory statements of guilt, and minimization techniques that appear to soften the severity of the crime.
Types of False Confessions
An accused individual may be vulnerable or have serious psychological problems. Therefore, they confess without any police coercion.
- Admit guilt because they feel they deserve punishment (e.g., guilt over another issue)
- Confess to protect someone else
- A desire for notoriety
During an interrogation, police rely heavily on tactics that utilize psychological pressures. Interrogators are allowed to lie to suspects, meaning that extreme stress can be used to coerce confessions from an innocent individual. One might believe confessing is the quickest way to end an uncomfortable situation. They know they are innocent but say they did it anyway. Unfortunately, coerced-compliant confessions are the most common kind of false confessions.
Police officers might use interview tactics that result in a coerced confession. Such methods can convince an innocent person that they did break the law. For instance, investigators may initiate an extremely lengthy interview, suggesting ways the person may have committed the crime but forgotten about it. Individuals can be persuaded to confess if they find one of the police explanations sensible.
Why Do People Confess to a Crime?
Risks to Innocent Suspects
- Personal Vulnerabilities
Dispositional vulnerabilities put a suspect at a higher risk of falsely confessing to a crime than the accused, who does not maintain the same or similar characteristics.
- Youth and inexperience
- Low IQ
- Highly dependent or suggestible
- Anxiety, delusions, and other symptoms of mental illness
- Grief, shock, and other transient emotional states
- Isolation and Long Interrogation Periods
Excessive time is accompanied by stress, fatigue, and despair, increasing rates of false confessions.
- Professionals have advised that three or four hours is sufficient and caution against exceeding this threshold. While most United States interrogations last less than two hours, a 2004 study found that, on average, interrogations that resulted in false confessions were 16.3 hours.
- Repeated Accusations, Deception, and Presenting Fabricated Evidence
False evidence substantially increases the rates individuals comply with interrogator's requests.
- Interrogators can be dishonest about fingerprints, hair, DNA, eyewitnesses, polygraph results, and other evidence.
- Over ten years of psychological research have shown that misinformation can alter people's visual perceptions, motivations, emotional states, and personal memories.
- Implicit and Explicit Threats of Punishment or Promises of Leniency and Minimization or Maximization of the Moral Seriousness or Legal Consequences of the Offense
These techniques can influence a suspect’s decision-making process in a coercive manner.
- Maximization: the interrogator exaggerates the strength of the evidence and the magnitude of the charges.
- Minimization: the interrogator mitigates the crime and plays down the seriousness of the offense.
Mental health professionals in the legal system can help individuals understand interrogation and confessions. By presenting research and making this information clear and accessible to legal personnel (police officers, detectives, judges, juries), a psychologist can educate individuals on which factors should be considered when evaluating the confession.
Additional Resources on Confessions and Police Interrogations
- The Role of Consultants and Expert Witness in Cases of Disputed Confessions
- Minimizing Bias in Forensic Decision Making
- Reducing Bias and Error in Forensic Judgment