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