How Easy Is It To Get a False Confession?


Confessions are considered the gold standard of police work. Most people believe that if a suspect confesses that means they’re guilty. A confession leads people to believe a case is open-and-shut – no need for a trial, lawyers, or a jury. Besides, who in their right mind would confess to something they didn’t do?

Just how easy is it to get a false confession?

What if I told you it is really easy to get someone to confess to something they didn’t do – just by asking them the right questions? A new study done at a Canadian university proves just that – that it is incredibly easy to convince someone that they had committed a fake crime.

Everyone knows it’s easy to make someone confess to something they didn’t do by torturing them or threatening their loved ones. The Canadian study showed something much scarier – that people could be coaxed into a false confession simply by using suggestive questioning. Over 70 percent of the participants in the study were convinced that they had committed a crime even though it was entirely made-up. They even fabricated and embellished details and felt guilty for a crime they did not commit.

But that’s not the scary part of the study. Here’s a quote from the article I linked above:

Some subjects persisted in believing they were guilty after they had been told the “crime” had been invented. “A few people argued with the experimenter and said, ‘Well no, I know this happened,’ ” says Porter.

The psychologists conducting the study actually ended it early (after using 60 students as test subjects) due to their concern over its implications.

Police interrogations are different – in a bad way:

There are several major differences between the Canadian study and what happens in police interrogations. Police interrogations often go on longer, have more than one interrogator, use outright lies and imagined evidence, use confrontational tactics, and the people being interrogated are generally not as smart as your average Canadian college student.

Police officers and detectives will interrogate someone for hours, often taking turns between questioners. In one case officers interrogated a homeless pregnant woman for 12 hours in order to get a confession they later found out was completely false.

Police officers and detectives will lie to suspects about the evidence they have, and make it seem that confessing to a crime is their best and only option. True story: I was once interrogated by a detective for a crime I knew I didn’t commit. One of the first things the detective said to me was “we have you on video tape.” There was no tape.

Police officers rely on an interrogation technique called the “Reid Technique.” This method is considered the gold standard for interrogation techniques, and is supposedly designed to allow officers to figure out whether or not a suspect is credible, and to get a confession out of the suspect. Many studies have called this method into question,  and it has led to a multitude of false confessions.

Confessions and video:

One idea people have come up with to put an end to false confessions is to videotape all interrogations. That way, the logic goes, we can see for ourselves what actually goes on and confirm that the suspect actually confessed.

Although recording all interrogations is definitely a great start, there are some problems with thinking it’s the ultimate solution. Juries are far more likely to believe a videotaped confession than an audio recording, one that is hand-written, or one testified to by police. Also, as pointed out in an NYT Op-Ed last year, the police and prosecutors can use the video angles to dramatic effect. A videotaped confession doesn’t usually show the police’s prior encounters with the suspect – walking him down the hall, talking to him in a holding cell, and otherwise leaning on him and prepping him before he goes into the interrogation room.

Don’t believe everything you hear:

One thing we can take away from all this is that confessions should not be the gold standard of criminal cases. It’s not hard to pressure innocent people into confessing to things they didn’t do.