Getting people to confess while innocent is remarkably easy, unfortunately…

Here’s an important and telling paper, just published in Psychological Science (abstract below). The bottom line is that straightforward manipulations (information provided by a caregiver to a target participant) could lead the participants to believe, in the context of episodic memory recall, that they had committed a criminal offence in the past.

In the research reported here, we explored whether complete false memories of committing crimes involving police contact could be generated in a controlled experimental setting. If so, we wanted to explore how prevalent they would be and how their features would compare with those of both false memories of other emotional events and true memories. If supposed corroboration by caregivers informs young adults that they committed a crime during adolescence, can they generate such false memories, or do they reject the notion?

Shockingly, disturbingly and probably not too surprisingly, 70% of those allocated to the criminal manipulation condition admitted to a crime they did not in fact commit.

Conclusions? Confessions should be treated as extremely suspect and contaminable trace evidence. Little wonder The Innocence Project has had so many false confessions and convictions overturned when forensic evidence is brought to bear on crimes

Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime
Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter
Memory researchers long have speculated that certain tactics may lead people to recall crimes that never occurred, and thus could potentially lead to false confessions. This is the

Psychological Science (journal)
Psychological Science (journal) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

first study to provide evidence suggesting that full episodic false memories of committing crime can be generated in a controlled experimental setting. With suggestive memory-retrieval techniques, participants were induced to generate criminal and noncriminal emotional false memories, and we compared these false memories with true memories of emotional events. After three interviews, 70% of participants were classified as having false memories of committing a crime (theft, assault, or assault with a weapon) that led to police contact in early adolescence and volunteered a detailed false account. These reported false memories of crime were similar to false memories of noncriminal events and to true memory accounts, having the same kinds of complex descriptive and multisensory components. It appears that in the context of a highly suggestive interview, people can quite readily generate rich false memories of committing crime.


Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

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