The Psychology of False Confessions


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Types of False Confessions

What other reasons could explain why false confessions occur? Why do suspects who are innocent confess to crimes they did not commit? What is it about police interrogation that sometimes compels innocent people to incriminate themselves? A perusal of the anecdotal literature (Reik, 1959; Schafer, 1968; Zimbardo, 1967) has led Kassin and Wrightsman (1985) to dis tinguish among three psychologically distinct types of false confessions.

Voluntary False Confessions

A voluntary false confession is a self-incriminating statement that is purposefully offered in the absence of pressure by the police (Bedau & Put nam, 1996; Ofshe, 1992; Note, 1953; Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Wrights- man & Kassin, 1993). Canadian forensic law experts Rogers and Mitchell (1991) further noted that the accused who is giving a voluntary statement must have an operating mind--a mind that appreciates what is occurring and that appreciates the consequences of his or her action. Thus, the authors conclude, failing to understand or appreciate the consequences of expressing a statement only renders the statement inadmissible in court if the person does not possess an operating mind.

There are several possible reasons for why people give voluntary false confessions. A pathological need for fame and recognition (Radelet, Bedau, & Putnam, 1992) or as Note (1953) phrased a “morbid desire for notoriety” (p. 382) could account for the false confessions in cases which receive wide spread public attention such as the Lindbergh kidnapping case and the “Black Dahlia” murder. Radelet et al. (1992) reported a case in which a man falsely confessed to a murder to impress his girlfriend. Gudjonsson (1999) conducted an extensive psychological evaluation of Henry Lee Lucas who is estimated to have confessed to over 600 murders. Gudjonsson concluded that Lucas “would say and do things for immediate gain, attention and reac tion.....he was eager to please and impress people....the notoriety aspect of the confessions was appealing to him and fed into his psychopathology” (p. 423).

Frequently, false confessions are offered to protect a friend or relative, a fact often revealed in interviews with juvenile defenders (Gudjonsson, 1992; Gudjonsson & MacKeith, 1990). Huff, Rattner, & Sagarin, (1996) describe a scenario in which an innocent husband and wife are being held by police and the man falsely confesses to allow the wife to return home to tend to the children. Other possible motives for voluntary false confessions include an “unconscious need to expiate guilt over previous transgressions through self-punishment,” (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985, p. 77). Gudjonsson (1992) points out that a previous transgression can be eirther a real or an imagined act. Gudjonsson further states that the transgression does not necessarily have to be identifiable, “some individuals have a high level of generalized guilt, which is not related to a specific transgression, and this may influence a range of their behaviours [sic], including their need to volunteer a false confession” (p. 227). Finally, from my own experience, many individuals who have committed a crime that carries a large penalty will falsely confess to a lesser crime to avoid the more severe punishment associated with the original crime.

Coerced-Compliant False Confessions

Coerced-compliant confessions occur when suspects confess, despite the knowledge of their innocence, due to extreme methods of police interroga tions (Gudjonsson, 1991, 1992; Gudjonsson & MacKeith, 1990; Kassin, 1997; Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Wrightsman & Kassin, 1993). Numerous false-confessions that were elicited through the use of torture, threats, and promises were presumed to be of this type, as in the Salem witchcraft con fessions in the 17th century (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Wrightsman & Kassin, 1993). The best known classic example of a coerced-compliant false confession is the case of Brown v. Mississippi (1936).

“Brainwashing,” a technique commonly used on POWs falls under the category of coerced-compliant false confession. Almost forty years ago, during the Korean War, reports by the North Koreans stated that a number of cap tured American military men had confessed to a number of treasonable acts and expressions of disloyalty to the U. S. (Bem, 1966; Wrightsman & Kassin, 1993). Hunter (1960) examined the brainwashing methods used by the com munists during the Korean War. The prisoners would attend communist in doctrination lectures, for a minimum of four hours, at least once per day. During these lectures, the prisoners would be forced to make a confession and express the communist point of view in his own words. The rationale behind forcing the prisoners to confess was to have it become second nature for them and become a part of their mentality. As Hunter (1960) points out:

Each time a U.N. soldier stood up and used the words “I confess,” his Red masters were confident that in the back of his mind a tiny trace at least of this intrinsic content of the world would filter down, even if only subconsciously. Each time he repeated it, they were certain a little more of this content was being rubbed onto his mentality. The communists actually heard him saying each time, in their double talk, “I submit,” getting himself accustomed to the thought. (p. 238)

Similar confessions were made by some of the American POWs in the Vietnam War. During the first week of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Ameri can TV viewers saw the grim and swollen faces of captured American airmen, and as reported by Fleming and Scott (1991), “each of the pilots identified himself and delivered a short speech deploring their government’s involve ment in Operation Desert Storm” (p. 127).

Coerced-Internalized False Confessions

The third type of false confession is coerced-internalized, that is, when suspects who are innocent, but anxious, fatigued, pressured, or confused, and then subjected to highly suggestive methods of police interrogation, ac tually come to believe that they committed the crime (Kassin, 1997; Kassin & Kiechel, 1996; Kassin & Sukel, 1997; Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Wrightsman & Kassin, 1993). What is frightening about this type of false confession is that the innocent suspects’ memory of their own actions may be altered, making its “original contents potentially irretrievable.” (p. 226, Kassin, 1997; p. 78, Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985). -

There are remarkable cases involving coerced-internalized false confes sions. Kassin (1997) asserts that they all have two factors in common, namely: (a) a suspect who is vulnerable--i.e., one whose memory is malle able by virtue of his/her youth, interpersonal trust, naiveté, suggestibility, lack of intelligence, stress, fatigue, alcohol, or drug use, and (b) the presen tation of false evidence such as a rigged polygraph or other forensic tests (e.g., bloodstains, semen, hair, fingerprints), statements supposedly made by an accomplice, or a staged eyewitness identification as a way to convince the beleaguered suspect that he or she he is guilty. (p. 227)

Until recently, there was no empirical evidence for the concept of co erced-internalized false confessions. However, eyewitness memory re searchers have found that misleading post-event information can alter actual or reported memories of observed events (Cutler & Penrod, 1995; Loftus, 1979; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994). Recent studies suggest that it is even pos sible to implant false “recollections” of isolated childhood experiences, such as being lost in a shopping mall, that supposedly had been forgotten or bur ied in the unconscious, but in reality never happened (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994).

Various theories have been developed to respond to the question: What is it about police interrogation that cause some innocent people to incrimi nate themselves? From a psychological viewpoint (e. g., Kassin, 1997; Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Wrightsman & Kassin, 1993), coerced-compliant false confessions are explained by the innocent suspect’s wish to escape an aver sive situation and ensure a pleasant consequence. But what about the more baffling examples of internalized false confessions?

To account for the phenomenon of internalized false confessions, some observers (e. g., Ofshe, 1992; Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Wrightsman & Kassin, 1993) have compared the interrogation process to hypnosis. Foster, referring to the “station house syndrome,” asserted that police questioning “can produce a trance-like state of heightened suggestibility in the suspect” so that “truth and falsehood become hopelessly confused in the suspect’s mind” (1969, pp. 690-691). A. A. Liebault was a physician in the 1860s who believed that hypnosis was based on the implantation of a fixed idea in the mind of the subject. The subject relinquished his or her freedom of choice and carried out any suggestion that had been implanted in their mind (Laur ence & Perry, 1988). In 1970, Weinstein, Abrams, and Gibbons discovered that when a false sense of guilt is introduced into the minds of hypnotized individuals, they fair less in a polygraph lie detector test.

Interrogative Suggestibility

Gudjonsson and Clark (1986) proposed the concept of interrogative suggestibility to account for the individual differences in responses to police questioning. Gudjonsson defines interrogative suggestibility as “the extent to which within a closed social interaction, people come to accept messages communicated during formal questioning, as the result of which their subse quent behavioral response is affected” (1991, p. 280). Gudjonsson (1991) re- ported five interrelated components that are part of the concept of interroga tive suggestibility: (a) a closed social interaction between the interrogator and the interviewee, (b) a questioning procedure that involves two or more participants, (c) a suggestive stimulus, [e.g., a specific influential message (Schumaker, 1991) or a hint, cue, or idea (Gudjonsson, 1992)], (d) acceptance of the suggestive stimulus, and (e) a behavioral response to indicate whether or not the suggestion is accepted (p. 280). Gudjonsson (1991) further ex plains that interrogative suggestibility differs from other types of suggesti bility in four ways: (a) the above-mentioned closed nature of the social inter action, (b) the questions asked deal mainly with past experiences and recol lections, (c) the situation has a component of uncertainty, and (d) the situa tion is stressful with important consequences for the person being inter viewed. In this situation, the interrogator can manipulate three aspects-- uncertainty, interpersonal trust, and expectation--to alter the person’s susceptibility to suggestions.

But characteristics of the person being interviewed also affect the level of his or her suggestibility, (e.g., people who are suspicious are less suggestible than those who are trusting). Those with low intelligence and poor memo ries are generally more suggestible; low self-esteem, lack of assertiveness, and anxiety also affect suggestibility (Gudjonsson, 1991, 1999). Moreover, Gudjonsson observes those who were most suggestible as having:

. . . failed to be able to evaluate each question critically and give an swers that to them seemed plausible and consistent with the external cues provided. Nonsuggestible subjects, on the other hand, were able to adopt a critical analysis of the situation which facilitated the accu racy of their answers. (1991, p. 285)

An example can be found in the case of Delbert Ward, an introverted, easygoing but frail 59-year-old farmer with an IQ of 69 and functioning only in the “educably mentally retarded” range. Following long hours of intense questioning and surrounded by five or six 250-pound state troopers, Ward signed a false confession of murdering his own brother. Forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht (1994), stated in his book, Cause of Death, that according to Dr. Blumetti, the clinical psychologist who interviewed Ward, “Delbert would likely have been so nervous and confused at the time of his interrogation that he would have agreed with anything.” [He added that his ability to rea son was impaired and that his major focus would have been] “to get out of that setting. . . . His focus would not be on the questions he was being asked, but on getting out of that unfamiliar, threatening environment” (pp. 255-256).

Internalized false confessions, from another viewpoint, could result from a process of self-perception. Bem (1966) probed the idea that a false confession could alter the recollection of a person’s past behavior if the confession is given in the presence of cues previously associated with telling the truth (e.g., reassurance that one need not admit to wrongdoing). The result of his experiment led Bem to conclude that under conditions normally associated with telling the truth, subjects came to believe the lies they had been induced to tell. Bem (1967) further noted that “saying becomes believing only when we feel the presence of truth, and certainly only when a minimum of inducement and the mildest and most subtle forms of coercion are used” (pp. 23-24). Bem’s self-perception theory partially explains the internalized false confession phenomenon (Reifman, 1998). Closely related to Bem’s theory is an interrogation tactic described by Driver (1968) of having the suspect re peat the story over and over, for “if duped into playing the part of the criminal in an imaginary sociodrama, the suspect may come to believe that he was the central actor in the crime” (p.53). Another factor to consider in regard to internalized false confessions is the two-factor theory of emotions proposed by Schachter and Singer (1962). According to this theory, the experience of emotion depends on an interaction of two factors: (1) physiological arousal and (2) cognitive processes. As a result of this interaction, the individual is thought to experience an emotional state. Suggestible individuals during a police interrogation may cognitively label physiological response as guilt and would conclude that they are feeling guilty therefore they must have had some involvement in the crime. The result may be an internalized false confession.

Other Psychological Factors that Influence Innocent Suspects to Confess Falsely

Eysenck (1964) concurs with Gudjonsson that innocent suspects that have certain personalities and characteristics are also more prone to suggestibility, and are thus more likely to give false statements and confess to crimes that they did not commit. According to Eysenck, introverts are capable of being conditioned more easily than extroverts. Since most criminals are extroverts, the methods of interrogation that are designed to effectively deal with the typical extrovert criminal may have an overwhelming impact on a suspect who is an easily-conditionable introvert. Therefore, in addition to children, the mentally retarded (Perske, 1994) and the feeble-minded, per haps individuals who are exceptionally introverted, as in the case of Delbert Ward (Wecht, 1994), are also at risk. Perhaps a certain amount of stress ap plied to a normal person may get the truth out of him or her; but if a lot of stress is applied to the psychologically inadequate, the result could likely be a false confession (Brandon & Davies, 1973, Gudjonsson, 1992). The aforementioned psychological theories suggest some of the factors that may influence innocent suspects to give false confessions. What will be explored next are the types of psychological and social influence police interrogators use to get suspects to confess.

For law enforcement officials (Kassin, 1997), the purpose of interrogation is twofold: to obtain a full or partial confession and to elicit information on other evidence that is relevant to a case. Observational studies (e. g., Driver, 1968; Kassin, 1997; Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Wrightsman & Kassin, 1993; Zimbardo, 1967) have shown that the use of physical force has given way to more psychologically oriented methods, such as feigned sympathy and friendship, appeals to God and religion, the use of informants, the presentation of false evidence, and other forms of trickery and deception (Leo, 1992). After spending a year following homicide detectives in Baltimore, Simon (1991) described the police interrogator as:

. . . a salesman, a huckster as thieving and silver-tongued as any man who ever moved used cars or aluminum siding, more so, in fact, when you consider that he’s selling long prison terms to customers who have no genuine need for the product. (p. 213)

Many observers contend that deceptive and deceitful practices being used by police during the interrogation process may result in false confessions (e. g., Bedau & Putnam, 1994; Brandon & Davies, 1973; Driver, 1968; Frisman, 1995; Greenspan, 1996; Kassin, 1997; Kassin & Sukel, 1997; Macdonald, 1969; Macdonald & Michaud, 1987; McCann, 1998; Ofshe, 1991; Rogers & Mitchell, 1991; Schafer, 1968; Underwager & Wakefield, 1992; Wecht, 1994; Wood, 1995; Zimbardo, 1967). The polygraph or “lie-detector” and truth serum tests are some of the practices often manipulated by the police (Inbau, Reid, & Buckley, 1986; Macdonald, 1969; Macdonald & Michaud, 1987). Un derwager and Wakefield (1992) have seen several cases through their analysis of videotapes, audiotapes, and documents of actual police interrogations, some in which the accused were falsely told that they had failed the lie detector test and should therefore confess. However, in these cases the lie detector test was not failed, but proved to be inconclusive.

Most people have no idea “how incompletely and inaccurately (they) un derstand the way lie detectors really work. . . . (they) share the popular mis conception that polygraphs don’t make mistakes...” (Radelet, Bedau, & Put nam, 1992, p. 221). However, contrary to popular belief, polygraphs do make mistakes (Bedau & Putnam, 1996; Radelet et al., 1992; Underwager & Wake field, 1992). The person who conducts the test and interprets the data may affect the outcome of the polygraph. It would be particularly troubling if the polygraph examiner began the examination with a preconception that the suspect was likely guilty. An egregious misuse of the polygraph would be to use it only as an interrogative wedge to move a person already assumed to be guilty toward a confession.

The term “truth serum” was coined to describe the use of scopolamine, a- type of drug used as a means of obtaining confessions from criminals and of exonerating the innocent. The term has since been applied to any drug- which is employed to obtain confessions. A drugged person is highly suggestible, and this type of condition may lead to false or misleading answers- especially when the questions are phrased improperly (Macdonald, 1969)- . Inbau, Reid, and Buckley (1986) opined that such tests are often effective on persons who, if properly interrogated, would have been truthful anyway. The person who is determined to lie will usually be able to continue the deception even under the influence of the drug. On the other hand, the person who is likely to confess will probably do so as the result of skillful police interrogation, and it will not be necessary to use drugs.

The length of the interrogation may also have an impact on its outcome. In several of the cases noted, such as Chambers v. Florida (1940), the suspect was subjected to five days of prolonged questioning before a confession was obtained. This technique is commonly known as the “wear down” process and involves detaining an individual for a lengthy period of time whereas the focus of the individual becomes on short-term gratification (i.e., removing one self from the present situation) while failing to consider the long-term con sequences (i.e., a possible sentence). While referring to such a process concerning the Salem witch trials, Munsterberg (1908) commented: “In tedious examinations the prisoners were urged to confess through many hours till the accused were wearied out by being forced to stand so long or by want of sleep” (p. 148). Brandon & Davies (1973) observe that “almost anybody could be worn down by such a process if it goes on long enough, and is tough enough” (p. 52). Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson (1994) found that the most common reason inmates in an Icelandic prison made a false confession was to escape police pressure and to get out of police custody. It my own belief that an innocent suspect could be made to admit almost anything under the pressure of continuous questioning and suggestion. The individual would experience a feeling of incompetence that would increase feelings of helplessness and lack of control over the situation and then simply “submit.”

The Court’s Opinion on Police Interrogation

The Supreme Court of the United States, upon making its decision in the landmark case Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, quoted from the most prominent textbook, of that time, for training police officers, Inbau and Reid’s (1962) Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, to show that police used decep tion and psychologically coercive methods in questioning suspects (Underwager & Wakefield, 1992). The Court concluded that police questioning is oriented psychologically rather than physically, but that the rate of duress in herent in the situation was not diminished; recent observers concur (e. g., Kassin, 1997; Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Underwager & Wakefield, 1992). In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Supreme Court held that a confession, obtained from a suspect in custody during police interrogation, was admissible- only if it was made voluntarily, not coercively, and only if the police had taken the appropriate steps to ensure protection of the rights of the accused under the self-incrimination clause of the Fifth Amendment (Driver, 1968; Kassin, 1997; Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Underwager & Wakefield, 1992), That is, the police must advise suspects in custody of their constitutional rights to silence and to counsel. Law enforcement advocates immediately- protested that this decision would handcuff the police in their efforts to elicit confessions (Kassin, 1997). Legal scholars soon concluded that the Supreme Court’s ruling was not having this effect. In fact, research suggested that many juvenile suspects did not fully understand the rights they were given (Grisso, 1981, 1998).

Today, the Miranda issue is still in dispute. Critics of the Miranda warn ings maintain that the confession and conviction rates have dropped signifi cantly as a direct result of the warning and waiver requirements, thus triggering the release of dangerous criminals (Cassell, 1996). Proponents of the Miranda warnings, on the other hand, argue that the actual declines are in substantial (Schulhofer, 1996), that four out of five suspects waive their rights and submit to questioning, and that the Miranda decision has had a civilizing effect on police interrogation practices and has increased public awareness of constitutional rights (Leo, 1996).

Possible Consequences During Police Interrogation

Being interrogated by the police is a highly stressful experience. This stress can worsen when the suspect is isolated. Gudjonsson and MacKeith (1990) agree that isolation and confinement can cause a wide range of be havioral and physiological disturbances including loss of contact with reality. Furthermore, they note that factors encouraging a suspect to make a genuine confession may be similar to those influencing a person to make a false confession. They state that “non-psychotic individuals ruminating guiltily about such things as sexual deviation may also have an exceptionally low threshold to confession to things that they have not actually done.” (cited in Underwager & Wakefield, 1992). The false confessor may be aware that she or he is not telling the truth or his or her perceptions may be distorted or she or he might even be deluded for a brief period of time. A false confession in all of these situations is an interplay between the person’s mental state, basic personality, intelligence, and all of the circumstances of the interrogation (Gudjonsson & MacKeith, 1990).

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