Humans aren’t perfect, and sometimes we do things that seem to go against our best interests. We go out with friends instead of studying for exams, we date people we know are bad for us, and we binge on junk food even though we have healthy options in the fridge. Perhaps the most counterintuitive behavior we’ve been known to exhibit, though, holds much more serious consequences.
To falsely confess to a crime we didn’t commit seems to go against every survival instinct we have. What could cause a person to willingly (well, sort of) implicate themselves in a crime, an action that will result in their own trial and incarceration? Psychologists over the years have delved into the various factors that could push a person in this direction and have discussed what we could do to minimize the occurrence of false confessions.
The Lesser Of Two Evils
The majority of false confessions are not the result of an underlying mental disturbance or change in memory (though we’ll get to those), but of a highly aggressive form of interrogation. Especially in America, suspects may rationally decide to confess falsely, in large part because of the police officers’ ability to lie about evidence. This allowance includes lying about DNA, prints, surveillance footage, and polygraph results.
“Once the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus of the human brain becomes overloaded in pressure cooker interrogation sessions with cops, who use leading, suggestive, and totally inappropriate questions, the effect and end result of such interrogation/inquisition is a false confession,” Dean Tong, a certified forensic consultant and expert in child victim hearsay, told Medical Daily in an email.
The ruthlessness of these interrogations can reach such levels that the unimaginable begins to happen. In the infamous 1989 case of the Central Park Jogger (concerning the brutal beating and rape of a woman in the park), police questioned five teenage boys during interrogations lasting up to 30 hours, essentially wearing down their mental stamina. Eventually, all five of the boys relented and confessed to taking part in the crime, only to recant their confessions soon after. In 2002, the true perpetrator came forward, and DNA evidence confirmed he was the real rapist — all five boys had falsely confessed under police pressure.
This form of social influence is so strong that “people can become so stressed and broken down and they start to feel so hopeless about their current situation that they come to believe in a rational way a confession is in their best interest,” Saul Kassin, psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Williams College, told The Psych Report.
Kassin explained that in these types of cases, where the suspect confesses to a crime fully knowing they’re innocent, the person almost always recants their confession once the pressure of their situation has been lifted.
Tong also pointed out that a false confession may seem like a reasonable way to escape more serious consequences. “The suspect appeases and placates the police detective, perhaps in his mind, thinking that by rolling over and telling the detective what he wants to hear, the detective will go easy on the suspect,” he said.
Maybe I Did Do It…?
Though a rational decision to lie and escape interrogation is the most likely reason for a false confession, sometimes the psychological pressure of being aggressively questioned can make a suspect uncertain of their own memories.
Kassin calls these types of confessions coerced-internalized confessions, mainly brought about by the lies about evidence from police.
“These are the cases where individuals actually come to believe their own guilt as a function of the lies and their own suggestibility,” he explained. “Particularly kids and others who are limited intellectually, become so confused by the lies that they actually come to believe they have committed this crime they did not commit. They wonder why it is they can’t recall it. They are led to believe that it is possible for people to transgress without awareness, for people to do something terrible and repress it. So, they develop basically an inference that they must have committed this crime.”
Sometimes, detectives are capable of constructing such a vivid scenario that a suspect begins to imagine it themselves. An intensely imagined event has the capability to form a memory trace in the brain that is very similar to an experienced event, Northwestern University Scientists Kenneth Paller told Psychology Today.
A memory trace is chemical — memories are stored through the formation of particular proteins in the brain. Each time a memory is recalled, the proteins are at risk of being modified or reformed. Several studies have shown that inducing false memories by artificial means is possible, suggesting that the belief of one’s own guilt could be induced by intense suggestion.
Of course, a person’s mental state prior to questioning is a huge factor in how suggestible they would be to a new, false memory. An individual suffering from a mental illness or psychiatric disorder may be more suggestible than a healthy person, and more likely to falsely confess. Mentally ill individuals could be manipulated into confession through various avenues — including playing on sensitive topics from their past — some of which are only marginally connected to the crime in question.
“People can confess to a crime they have not committed because they are suffering from a pre-existing psychological disturbance,” John Vespasian, author of several books on rational philosophy and psychology, told Medical Daily in an email. “We are talking about serious mental problems, such as individuals who feel deeply ashamed or culpable for having made seemingly unimportant mistakes, and whose personality is so severely damaged that they are willing to confess themselves guilty of a crime they have not committed in order to make up for their past errors.”
Vespasian noted that these kinds of cases are extremely rare. He also added that in practice, it’s also highly unlikely to find an individual, however severe their mental illness, who will confess to a crime simply to enjoy the publicity that accompanies sensational trials.
It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around the idea of false confession. The idea is often rejected by those who are so sure of themselves no one could convince them otherwise, as well as those who believe they would simply be able to weather intense interrogation.
Kassin explained: “I have found that lay people have an easier time understanding why someone would kill themselves — they understand suicide and the motivations for it — than they do why someone would confess to a crime he did not commit.”