It is a common storyline in film and television: the innocent person that falsely confesses to a crime. The average person thinks: why would someone do that? How does it happen? Turns out, false confessions are far more common than you probably realize.
An article on false confessions published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law describes the problem and factors behind it. The study examined false confessions uncovered after individuals were exonerated with DNA evidence by analyzing the methods police used to obtain the confession.
Presumption of guilt
Psychological coercion results in false confessions, and certain circumstances during police interrogation make it more likely to occur. It starts when police decide an individual is guilty. Law enforcement are trained to believe they are ‘human lie detectors’ relying on body language and subjective behavior interpretation to decide whether someone is truthful. If a suspect fidgets, looks away when answering, scratches their nose, they are lying. They keep the pool of potential suspects small, for example, in cases where a family member is murdered police often first look to family members rather than external suspects. Police frequently make incorrect assumptions and judgments during investigations.
Hard choices based on nonexistent evidence and false promises
In situations where the police lack evidence, obtaining a confession becomes the police’s lynchpin and focus once they have narrowed in on the person they believe is guilty. This is commonplace when there is substantial external public pressure to find a perpetrator, as in murder and other high profile crimes.
Police interrogation techniques often cause the accused to believe they have no other option other than to comply with demands to confess. Investigators lie about evidence, falsely tell the accused that they will receive less punishment, or use other threats to get what they want. It is not hard to understand why an innocent person being told that the evidence establishes their guilt and that no one will believe them would confess, especially when the police promise a deal in exchange for cooperation.
Likely to fold under pressure
Interrogation techniques used on a suspect who has a compliant personality that avoids conflict and defers to authority figures, or those with developmental and cognitive impairments are much more likely to result in a false confession. However, a study examining 125 false confessions notes that 70% of suspects did not have these characteristics or impairments. It is clear that a false confession can happen to anyone, regardless of personality or psychological makeup.
The third tier in the false confession cocktail used by police is the way in which they shape the narrative of the story. Facts, motivations, or details of the crime are revealed by implication, suggestion, or explicitly told to the suspect. The information is then used to shape their confession.
It is not difficult to see how anyone confronted with a situation in which they have been held in a room involuntarily for hours and subject to lies, pressure, threats, and repeated accusations that they have committed a crime, would then make a decision that the benefit of confessing given the information at hand would outweigh the costs to fight against it.