Research shows innocent suspects falsely confess to crimes

Brandon Hallmark

“Throughout history, there are cases of people who falsely confessed, going back at least as far as the Salem Witch Trials. False confessions are not a new phenomenon,” said an associate professor at Iowa State.

What is new is a study conducted by ISU psychology professors that attempts to answer questions about why innocent suspects will confess to crimes.

In an interrogation, suspects are put under pressure to confess to a crime, even if they didn’t commit it. Generally, interrogated suspects are believed by police to be the one who committed the crime as evidence may indicate that person is guilty. As a result, the more the suspect denies the accusation, the more pressure interrogators will put on them to confess.

“The minute you give the police what they want, which is that confession, they’re going to stop pressuring you,” said Stephanie Madon, associate professor of psychology. “Essentially, you can put a stop to the immediate adversiveness by confessing.”

Research shows people have a natural tendency to place more value on the immediate consequences, said Max Guyll, assistant professor of psychology.

“What the research shows is that people will tend to more heavily weigh a consequence if it’s happening right now,” Guyll said.

But, according to Guyll, instances of false confession, although they do occur, are rare.

“Sometimes there’s the rare mistake that can occur. And what we’re trying to understand is why people might, in those rare instances, end up falsely confessing.”

The study involved two experiments that were designed to have an immediate or long-term consequence based on participant’s responses.

“So they’re faced with the same sort of situations that real suspects are faced with,” Madon said. “They’re either going to have to deal with the bad stuff now, or they can escape it, but if they do that, then they might have to deal with the bad stuff later.”

In both experiments, participants were asked twenty questions about their unethical and criminal behaviors. In the first, for every “No” response, the participant was asked repetitive additional questions. For every “Yes”, the participants were told that they would not be asked the questions, but would be speaking with a police officer at a later date. In the second, the opposite was the case. Participants would meet with a police officer for every “No” answer and would be asked the additional questions at a later date for every “Yes.” In both, subjects were informed of both the immediate and long-term consequences before the questioning began.

In both experiments, the participants would generally attempt to avoid the immediate consequence, regardless of the long-term consequence.

“In both studies, what we showed was that participants made their confession decisions on the basis of the immediate consequence,” Madon said. “They answered in a way that would get them out of the immediate consequence, even though it increased their risk of incurring the future consequence in several weeks time. We were pretty excited by that effect because several prominent researchers have proposed that this is what’s happening in interrogations but it hadn’t been tested before.”

However, Madon added the experiment only dealt with one factor of confession.

“We were focusing on one single process as an explanation, recognizing that there are other factors there, also occurring at the same time,” Madon said.

Regardless, both believe that the study will help shape the future of police interrogations.

“First and foremost, we would like interrogations to produce accurate results,” Guyll said.

“We believe that our research underscores the need for police interrogation reforms that limit the use of police interrogation methods that exacerbate suspects’ tendency to make confession decisions on the basis of short-term benefits,” Madon said.

Law enforcement’s goal is to arrest the guilty party, and both Madon and Guyll hope the research will help officers to convict the real criminals and keep innocent suspects out of jail.

“I think police and researchers are on the same side,” Madon said.