It’s possible to convince people they’re guilty of doing something they haven’t done.
Gimme the gist
It goes without saying that nobody would admit to something they haven’t actually done, especially if that something was illegal or criminal. No innocent would pretend to be guilty.
But what if they weren’t pretending? What if it was possible to make a person doubt their own innocence?
Surprise: It can be disturbingly easy to manipulate people into a false confession, as research by Saul Kassin and Jennifer Perillo has found.
In one of their experiments, 71 university students were told they were being tested on their reaction times. Someone would read letters out loud to them, and they had to press the matching keys on a keyboard. The researchers then warned the participants against pressing the ALT key, explaining that it was broken and would erase all research data.
The computer was actually rigged to crash one minute into the test, no matter what the students did. After it crashed, the supervising researcher would accuse the participant of having hit the forbidden ALT key and ask them to sign a confession, even though they have done absolutely nothing wrong.
The result? As many as 25 percent of completely innocent students ended up confessing to hitting the ALT key.
But even that’s not all: The false confession rate goes up dramatically when there’s a “witness” involved.
In a second experiment, the same researchers had another person in the room during the test. This person would then claim they’d seen the participants hitting the ALT key after the computer crashed. In this case, an incredible 80 percent of innocent participants ended up confessing.
This research, along with many other similar studies, highlights the dangers of relying too strongly on confessions given during interrogations. Sometimes, all it takes to force a false confession are a few simple psychological tricks.
- Frontline: Study Offers Disturbing False Confession Insights
- The Economist: Silence is golden
- Perillo & Kassin: Inside Interrogation: The Lie, The Bluff, and False Confessions