The Psychology of False Confessions

Demand Characteristics of Police Interrogation

In order to increase the likelihood of a confession from a suspect by police, the following conditions must be met. During questioning, an envi ronment that minimizes sensory stimulation, maximally exposes the sus pect’s vulnerability, and provides for complete control and domination by the interrogator must be created (Zimbardo, 1967). Privacy, being totally alone with suspects, is therefore highly imperative, for it is the primary psychologi cal factor conducive to successful interrogations (Inbau & Reid, 1967; Tousignant, 1991). Several authors (e. g., Inbau & Reid, 1967; Inbau et al., 1986; Macdonald, 1969; Tousignant, 1991; Zimbardo, 1967) concur that the location must have surroundings that are unfamiliar to the suspect. The in terviewing room must be free from noise, must have no windows, and must be bare except for a table and a couple of chairs: one for the suspect and one- for the interrogator. The interrogator must try to establish a superficial friendship with the suspect as well as exhibit unexpected kindness. The former must also feign the seriousness of the crime by excusing the crime (minimization of seriousness). Other strategies include employing the sympathetic approach, trickery, and deceit (Inbau & Reid, 1967; Inbau et al., 1986; Macdonald, 1969; Macdonald & Michaud, 1987).

The above-mentioned are only part of the demand characteristics of police questioning and are constituents of the 16 strategies for interrogation pro posed by Inbau, Reid, and Buckley’s manual (1987). According to Underwager and Wakefield (1992), the U. S. Supreme Court noted that these 16 strategies show three major recurring themes in the manual: 1. The first is to reattribute the implications of the situation by shifting the blame or minimizing the seriousness. 2. Alternatively, the questioning may aim at frightening the individual by exaggerating the evidence available, the consequences to the individual, or stating firmly that the interrogator knows the person is guilty. 3. The third theme is the emotional appeal to the person being questioned by showing sympathy, flattery, respect, and appeal to the best interest of the suspect. These are some of the practices the court found inherently coercive. (p. 166)

The police methods designed to obtain confessions can potentially undermine the concept of a voluntary confession. Based on his review of training manuals, Zimbardo (1967) believes that the interrogation techniques of the police are sometimes more highly developed, more psychologically sophisticated, and more effective than those that were used by the Chinese Communists in Korea.


There are a significant number of wrongful convictions in the United States. A 1987 study by Bedau and Radelet identified that the primary cause for the conviction of 49 of the 350 cases of miscarriages of justice in the U.S. was a false confession obtained by coercive police questioning. How often false confessions result in wrongful convictions is unknown, although some observers (e. g., Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985; Wrightsman & Kassin, 1993; Wrightsman et al., 1994) attest that enough cases have been documented to suggest that a concern over such a risk is justified. A review of the literature indicated that there are a limited number of research studies and little empirical data available for extensive study in the psychology of false confessions. –

There are psychological and social factors that influence innocent suspects to give self-incriminating false statements such as suggestibility- . There are other variables as well. Deception and deceit, together with other- questionable and inappropriate police interrogation and investigative procedures seem to be common and continue to be employed during the interrogation process. An indeterminate number of false confessions may be attributed to the inherently coercive nature of police interrogation during which deceptive and deceitful practices may be used and approved by the judicial system.


First, in view of the current research findings on false confessions, one must take a closer look at the formidable and detrimental impact of questioning techniques employed by police interrogators and investigators. Several studies (Baldwin, 1993; Fisher, Geiselman, & Raymond, 1987; Moston, Stephenson, & Williamson, 1992) have shown that overall, police investigators possess poor interviewing skills. Some of the more questionable inter viewing techniques noted in the studies included interrupting the suspect, asking questions in a rapid manner (Baldwin, 1993; Fisher, Geiselman, & Raymond, 1987), possessing a limited degree of flexibility during the inter view (Moston, Stephenson, & Williamson, 1992), inappropriate sequencing of questions, negative phrasing of questions, nonneutral wording of questions, inappropriate language, and judgmental comments (Fisher, Geiselman, & Raymond, 1987). In light of the results of these studies and the fact that police spend as much as 85% of their on duty time talking to people (Miline & Bull, 1999), it seems apparent that police investigators should receive special training in appropriate interviewing skills and be instructed of the dangers of not using such skills. During training, special attention should also be given to dealing with individuals with special needs such as the mentally handicapped. In the UK, this issue has been addressed. Juveniles, the men tally ill, and the mentally handicapped are identified as “at risk,” and during interrogation, an appropriate adult (e.g., parent, social worker) must be present to assist with communication and safeguard the rights of the individual (McKenzie, 1994). Effective communication practices by investigators will lead to accuracy (Shuy, 1998) and accountability in the criminal justice system and hopefully reduce the number of erroneous convictions.

Second, the judicial system needs to be more cognizant of the inappropriate approaches of eliciting confessions from suspects in custody. Interrogations should be centered around eliciting the truth rather than attempting to secure a confession. When questioning a potential suspect, the investigator should thus assume a disinterested role rather than an adversarial one. Re search has shown that many of the tactics used to persuade a suspect who is reluctant to volunteer information described in popular interrogation manuals such as Inbau, et al. (1986), are quite unnecessary and fail to persuade suspects to alter their initial response given to police investigators (Baldwin, 1993; Moston, Stephenson, & Williamson, 1992). In reviewing 600 police interrogations in the UK, Baldwin (1993) found that only three sus pects were persuaded to change their initial statements during an interview due to the persuasive skills of the interrogator. Baldwin calls for such interrogation techniques to be outlawed in order for the concern over miscarriages of justice to be minimized.

Related to this issue is the length of the interrogation process which also seems to have an impact on the possibility of a false confession. The longer the interrogation process, the greater the likelihood of an untrustworthy confession (Leo & Ofshe, 1998; Munsterberg, 1908; White, 1998). In many of the cases presented in the Bedau & Radelet (1987) study, the interrogations of suspects lasted for several hours and in some cases several days. Prolonged interrogations were also used in several of the landmark cases presented earlier (i.e., Chambers v. Florida). It is important to note that in Baldwin’s (1993) study, almost 75% of the interviews were concluded within 30 minutes, which indicates that interrogations can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. In the UK, there are guidelines which limit the length of interrogations (36 hours; 96 with court approval) and the time of day in which the interrogations may take place–they may not take place when the individual would normally be sleeping (McKenzie, 1994). Similar guidelines in the United States could perhaps curb the possibility of a coerced confession and save on police resources.

Third, in order to eliminate bias and to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of confessions, it is imperative that statements issued be corroborated by evidence. In several of the cases reviewed (e.g., Brown v. Mississippi) and in a substantial number of cases from studies cited (e.g., Bedau & Radelet, 1987), many of the defendants were tried, convicted, and sentenced on the basis of a confession alone; there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime in question. Gudjonsson (1992) points out that in Scotland an individual can not be convicted solely on the basis of a confession. Such a procedural safeguard in the United States would relieve any doubts about the authenticity of a suspect’s confession.

Fourth, in order to ensure the validity and veracity of the obtained confessions, I propose a videotaping or audiotaping of all interrogations. Opponents of videotaping argue the practice would discourage confessions from suspects and be quite costly (Higgins, 1998). However, an exploratory study on videotaping interrogations and confessions by Geller (1993) found that 63.1% of the police agencies surveyed reported no change in suspects’ willingness to talk, and 60% reported that more incriminating information was given by suspects while being videotaped. The study also found that since the adoption of videotaping, claims of police misconduct were reduced, and 97% of police agencies reported videotaping to be useful. Based on the research, it would seem that a mandatory videotaping requirement would serve a dual purpose of protecting police agencies from claims of misconduct and safeguarding the rights of suspects. The costs of implementing videotaping would be offset by reducing officer stress and burnout (Geller, 1993), not to mention the costs associated with exonerating an individual who has been incarcerated. As of this writing, in the United States, only Alaska and Minnesota require the videotaping of interrogations (Higgins, 1998), while in England and Wales the recording of suspect interviews is mandatory (McKenzie, 1994).

Finally, additional research on the subject of false confessions is required. To date, only one laboratory experiment has been conducted on the subject. Kassin and Kiechel (1996) hypothesized that:

the presentation of false evidence can lead individuals who are vulnerable (i.e., in a heightened state of uncertainty) to confess to an act they did not commit and, more important, to internalize the confession and perhaps confabulate details in memory consistent with that new belief. (p. 126)

To test this hypothesis, Kassin and Kiechel (1996) asked 79 students to participate in a reaction time experiment. After being warned not to touch the “ALT” key because the computer would crash, a confederate read letters to the participants in two different speeds to manipulate the participant’s vulnerability. After 60 seconds, the computer was purposefully crashed by the experimenters. None of the participants was responsible for causing the computer to crash; however, each was blamed for doing so.

Half of the participants were told that the confederate had seen them hit the “ALT” key. Participants were then asked to sign a handwritten confession that they had hit the “ALT” key causing the computer to crash. Overall, 69% of the subjects signed the confession, 28% internalized their guilt (believing they had hit the wrong button), and 9% confabulated details to fit with their false belief that they had caused the computer to crash. The most vulnerable group was the fast typing/false evidence (having been “seen” hit the key); 100% of this group signed the confession. This study supported the notion that when presented with false evidence people can be induced to internalize guilt for an event with which they had no involvement. Kassin and Kiechel (1996) also recommend that additional research is needed to examine other methods commonly used in police interrogation manuals (e.g., minimization) and other risk factors (i.e., sleep deprivation, etc.) that could possibly lead to an unreliable confession. It is also hoped that in the future, with the increased use of videotaping interrogations, further research can be conducted to clarify some of the gray areas regarding false confessions. This research could perhaps facilitate appropriate legislation in the regulation of questionable interrogation tactics.


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Article submitted for publication: 6 February 1999 Revision submitted: 23 December 1999. Article accepted for publication: 23 March 2000

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The Psychology of False Confessions

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