The innocent can easily be made to falsely confess

prison cellby Tim Pearce, Los Gatos

Why Do the Innocent Confess?
[Via 80beats]

In the justice system, a confession is often treated as proof of guilt—and yet, a surprising number of people confess to crimes they didn’t commit. In its latest issue, the Economist reviews recent research showing just how frequently innocent people ‘fess up, and what factors lead them to do it.

When an experimenter falsely accused subjects of crashing a computer, 25% of them confessed even though they’d done nothing wrong, one study found. If the accusation was corroborated by a (lying) eyewitness, that number jumped to 80%. In another study, participants falsely accused of cheating on a task were told that authority figures were processing evidence that could prove their guilt—in this case, a tape. Half the people confessed, even though they must have known the tape recorded their actual, innocent behavior. This is particularly worrying because police often use this same tactic when waiting to get DNA or fingerprint results.

While the situations—research subject vs. crime suspect—are of course quite different, the parallels are enough to give one pause.


I’ll remember this the next time I am on jury duty. 50% or more confessing to something they did not do is really high. In one test, 10% of the people did not cheat but admitted to cheating even when told that there would be a $72 fine for cheating.

And the numbers go up even higher when the ‘interrogator’ is allowed to lie and present false evidence – something allowed in the US but not in the UK. When this is done, the numbers of false confessions rise to 80%.

But why do they confess? Interviews suggested that some felt they would be exonerated in the end and signed the confessions just to stop an uncomforatble situation.

Man, what happens to someone interrogated for hours in a closed room by people that can lie? A big reason why you should never talk to the police without a lawyer

One thought on “The innocent can easily be made to falsely confess

  1. I just found this blog entry of yours while writing a blog entry of my own. I pleaded guilty of theft, aggravated theft and identity theft charges in Oregon in 2007. I signed my life away to the state for 32 months (was ultimately let go early). Why did I confess? My own public court appointed attorney strongly advised that even though I had not told my side of the story there was enough evidence (e-mails that had my name on it, etc, etc.) to find me guilty and convict me had I taken it to court. On the day of my court hearing and having previously agreed to take the plea agreement but having spoken with other inmates in the jail that I was housed in who strongly advised taking the plea deal because I could have worked for leniency (I had no priors, etc, etc.) I was led to a closed room with all members of the prosecution and the detectives who had worked on the case. My public attorney told me that I was fighting against them and that it was in my best interest to plead guilty and to sign my life away. I never did anything wrong aside from refuse to give up the truth to the police because I feared for my well being. It’s well known rats/snitches don’t survive in the prison population – if I had given up the perpetrators of the crime and the state still viewed the evidence against me (which was limited to acts that had been done in my name but not by me then I wouldn’t have survived even had I gotten a lesser penalty. I felt absolutely shoe-horned, alone and in no position to fight for my innocence.

    Since returning to Australia following my release I have restarted my life, from scratch, and am now working on completing a Bachelor of Arts (Internet Communications) degree and a Bachelor of Business (Marketing) degree. Despite all of this the Internet has a lot of negative press on my name without much positiveness. I must fight for now what I was too weak to fight for then – my freedom. Through my actions, getting my degree and performing well in a community environment hopefully some day I can clear my name completely of the association I had with guilt.

    Great entry. I will eagerly read through your more recent entries.

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