"If you've ever been in an hour-long argument with someone, just think how exhausting that is, and how you get to a point where you will say you are wrong just to make it stop. Now imagine that argument going on for 16 hours," says Max Guyll, explaining why some people falsely confess. (Credit: Sunset Sarsaparilla/Flickr)

Why do innocent people confess to a crime?

The innocent are often less stressed than the guilty during interrogations. And that could put them at greater risk to admit to a crime they didn’t commit, researchers say.

To better understand what leads to false confessions, researchers at Iowa State University measured various indicators of stress, such as blood pressure, heart rate, and nervous system activity.

In the study, published in Law and Human Behavior, stress levels increased for all participants when they were first accused. However, the levels for those wrongly accused were significantly lower. Researchers say that’s a concern because it can make the innocent less likely to vigorously defend themselves in a real interrogation.

“The innocent are less stressed because they believe their innocence is going to protect them and they think everything is going to be OK, so there is no reason to get worked up over this accusation,” says Stephanie Madon, an associate professor of psychology.

“But if you’re going into a police interrogation and you’re not on your guard, then you could make decisions that down the line will put you at risk for a false confession. Because once you talk to police, you’re opening up the chance that they’re going to use manipulative and coercive tactics.”

Minimization is one of those tactics used in interrogations and the tactic Madon and Max Guyll, an assistant professor of psychology, used in their study. By minimizing the severity of a crime, Guyll explains how investigators try to convince the person they are questioning it’s in his or her best interest to confess. Initially, it is easier for the person to defend himself or herself, but over time they start to wear down.

“If you’re brought in late at night and kept for several hours, you’re exhausted, and you have these investigators who are in a position of power. They’re challenging everything you say and they’re not accepting anything you say,” Guyll says. “That pressure starts to take a toll physiologically and there’s a greater chance you’ll give up and confess.”

The innocent do confess

The Innocence Project is a nonprofit group that works to exonerate those who are wrongly convicted, many because of false confessions. To date, the organization has helped clear 80 people who admitted to crimes they did not commit.

Madon says other researchers have studied false confession cases in which police recorded the length of the interrogation. Of those cases, they found people were questioned for up to 16 hours on average before admitting to a crime they did not commit.

“These people held out for a very long time, but they couldn’t hold out forever,” Madon says.

Typically, interrogations only last 30 minutes to 2.5 hours. But with some false confessions, suspects were questioned for up to 24 hours.

“Being in a police interrogation is a very powerful situation,” Guyll says. “If you wear a person down you can probably get false confessions.”

Fight or flight

For students participating in the study, it took only a short amount of time for some to confess. Students were connected to monitors so that researchers could measure their stress levels at different points throughout the experiment. The study is the first to look at physiological response, which is important because the results cannot be easily altered or influenced by bias if the researchers had asked students how much stress they felt when accused.

Madon says the students were given an assignment, part of which was to be completed individually and the other part with a partner. The experiment was set up so that the partner would ask some students for help with the individual task, essentially getting them to break the rules, so they would be guilty of misconduct.

Students, both innocent and guilty, were later accused of academic misconduct and asked to sign a form confessing. It came as no surprise to researchers that 93 percent of the guilty students confessed, but 43 percent of those who were innocent also agreed to sign the confession form.

Although the innocent showed less stress than the guilty when first accused of misconduct, that changed when students were pressured further to sign a confession. In comparison to students who gave up and confessed, the innocent who refused to confess showed greater sympathetic nervous system activity, which is associated with the fight or flight response.

If questioned for a long period of time, the greater expenditure of resources could start to take a toll, Guyll says. As a result, it can cause even more of the innocent to lose their energy and motivation to continue defending themselves, ultimately leading them to give up and confess.

“Everyone’s resources are drained over time, and this is made even worse when investigators constantly pressure the suspect and dispute their story,” Guyll says. “If you’ve ever been in an hour-long argument with someone, just think how exhausting that is, and how you get to a point where you will say you are wrong just to make it stop. Now imagine that argument going on for 16 hours.”

Researchers also videotaped the experiment to look at differences in body language and facial expressions among the different groups. While some students had a nervous smile or laughter, there was no measurable difference in the responses between the guilty and wrongly accused.

Iowa State graduate students Yueran Yang and Daniel G. Lannin, along with Kyle Scherr, Central Michigan University, and Sarah Greathouse, Rand Corp., were also part of this study.

Source: Iowa State University

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2 Comments

  1. Roy Niles

    Obviously police can get false confessions under pressure, but there are of course no false confessions from the guilty, whether they are students knowing they are in n experiment or otherwise. Students, to relieve the pressure, lose nothing but some dignity and credibility by confessing. In the real world it is NOT easier to get false confessions than real ones, period. Of course the innocent lack stress compared to the guilty. So what. This does not make them vulnerable, it’s the inability to handle the unfairness of the accusation that in the end leads to a confession.

  2. Janet cardin

    False confessions are deemed necessary by the inncocent because they are backed into a corner. There comes a time when they realize that the only way out it to say “I’m guilty.” Whenever I hear that someone confessed to a crime during questioning the method of getting this confession needs to be examined. It is also necessary to continue to process the crime scene to locate all the players and make sure the crime scene data matches the accused.

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