Study reveals danger of false memories and confessions in criminal cases

Research suggests certain interrogation tactics can lead innocent people to form false memories, which could put them at risk for giving false confessions.

False confessions have been a factor in about one-quarter of wrongful convictions that have been overturned on the basis of DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. The reasons that people give these confessions are varied, but they often involve a belief that confessing is the best available option. However, one study suggests that some innocent people might give false confessions because they genuinely and mistakenly believe they committed the crime in question.

Fictional memories of crimes

According to The Toronto Star, researchers in Canada recruited 70 college students who had no history of criminal activity to participate in the study. The researchers spoke to each student's caretakers to get a detailed account of a memorable event that occurred when each participant was between ages 11 and 14. Then, during three interviews, the researchers asked the participants to recall this event and a fictional crime.

The researchers were vague about the nature of this crime, but they reassured students that they could remember it with enough effort. They also encouraged the participants to use visualization techniques to recall the incident. Troubling, after just three interviews, seven out of ten students were convinced that they had committed violent criminal offenses or other infractions.

The conviction that these students had in their false memories was troubling. Many students generated emotionally upsetting and detailed memories. For example, after being told that she had committed some form of assault, one girl recalled hurling a rock at another girl's head and knocking her unconscious. Some students insisted their memories were real even after the researchers explained that they weren't.

Potential problems with interrogations

These findings are alarming given the tactics that authorities may use to interrogate people suspected of criminal activity. According to The New Yorker, the widely used Reid technique lets police officers use leading tactics if they believe, based on body language, that a person is guilty. For example, an officer may insist that he or she knows the person committed a crime. In some cases, such as felony sexual offenses, authorities might even falsely claim that evidence ties the person to the crime.

The results of the study suggest that these tactics could lead innocent people to become convinced they really are guilty. This is especially true in light of the following differences between the study's interviews and real-life interrogations:

  • Duration. The interviews only lasted 40 minutes. Custodial interrogations may last hours, causing suspects to become exhausted or mentally fatigued.
  • Mental state. The interviews were conducted in a friendly manner, so participants felt comfortable and in control. People facing interrogations may be anxious, distressed or confused, which may make them likelier to make harmful decisions.
  • Leading tactics. Although the study's researchers used poor memory retrieval techniques, they did not feed the participants information about their alleged crimes. Authorities, in contrast, may directly or indirectly provide suspects with information that only a perpetrator would know.

Considering these differences, the likelihood of false memory formation and false confessions might be even higher during interrogations.

Preventing false confessions

The risk of false confessions is a threat that anyone facing criminal charges should take seriously. Here in New York, such confessions have contributed to 30 known wrongful convictions, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Even more undetected wrongful convictions could involve the same factor.

To ensure that personal rights are protected during interrogation procedures, people who have been accused of crimes should consider speaking to a defense attorney. An attorney may be able to help a person understand his or her rights and avoid making damaging decisions during the criminal justice process.