Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/False confession motivation

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False confessions:
What motivates people to falsely confess to crimes?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case study

In 1989, a 28-year old woman named Trisha Meili lived in New York. One night while jogging in Central Park, she was brutally assaulted, raped and left for dead. She was rushed to hospital suffering from severe injuries including a fractured skull, considerable blood loss and hypothermia. Despite the significantly high possibility of permanently remaining in a coma, she survived and made a full recovery; but unfortunately had no recollection of any details of the attack. This case became famously known as the Central Park Jogger case and caused outrage around the world over the horrific nature of the crime. However the next stage of the case, the investigation, caused a great deal of outrage as well.

The police arrested five teenagers who were in the park during the time in question. Each suspect confessed to attacking Meili and also implicated each other which led to convictions of physical assault and rape for all five teenagers in 1990. It wasn’t until 2002, through advancements in DNA testing, that a match was found to a convicted serial rapist who was later named as the real perpetrator. The five teenagers, now men, had their convictions overturned after spending between 7 to 13 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit. Since then, this case has become one of the best-known examples involving false confessions (Gavin, 2019).

Within the legal system, a confession can be characterised as one of the most important pieces of evidence when attaining a conviction. Through use of the fundamental attribution error, social psychologists have stated that even when certain evidence, in this case a confession, is unreliable, jurors are still influenced by its mere presence (Conti, 1999). The use of confessions within the legal system can be traced back to the 4th century BCE in Ancient Greece and Rome, when the magistrate read the charges to the defendant before they entered a plea (Britannica, 2019).

While confessions are very useful, are they always true? This question has been investigated throughout the psychological domain. The purpose of this chapter is to outline the specific motivations behind false confessions. The chapter seeks to answer the questions listed below with reference to high profile cases and psychological theories.

Focus questions
  • What are the 3 types of false confessions?
  • What are some risk factors associated with producing a false confession?
  • What is the motivation behind false confessions according to the self-perception theory and two-factor theory of emotion?

History and prevalence of false confessions[edit | edit source]

As noted earlier, confessions have been used within the legal system for centuries. The earliest recorded instance of a false confession was during The Great Fire of London in 1666 when a man, Robert Hubert, confessed to being the arsonist and was later hanged. After an investigation took place, it was found Hubert was not even in London at the time of the fires. This case was the first of many since this time (Jones, 2019).

Below are some statistics on the prevalence of false confessions around the world:

  • According to the Innocence Project (2019), 360 or more cases overturned within the U.S. involved a type of false confession.
  • The 2016 Sydney Exoneration Project “Not Guilty” revealed false confessions are a main reason for wrongful convictions (LY Lawyers, 2017).
  • Within the U.S., false confessions were evident in around 1 in 4 cases that were overturned using DNA evidence.
  • 12% of wrongful convictions overturned between 1989 and 2016 involved a false confession (Aljazeera, 2019).

While many cases with false convictions have been overturned, there will always be some that slip through the cracks. Therefore, providing accurate statistics on false confession rates is nearly impossible. Projects, such as the Innocence Project, aim to rectify miscarriages of justice using recent advancements in DNA testing (Innocence Project, 2019).

Types of false confessions[edit | edit source]

What are the main motives behind false confessions? Even when people know they are innocent, why are they still motivated to confess to a crime? These questions sparked Kassin and Wrightsman (1985) to develop a framework outlining the different types of false confessions.

Voluntary[edit | edit source]

A voluntary confession is a self-incriminating statement provided willingly and knowingly to the police, meaning the person is of sound mind during the time of the confession. This confession involves no physical or psychological coercion, such as pressure through police interrogation or physical harm. These often occur when a person calls a police station or walks in to confess. While some of these confessions may be true, they place a significant strain on police resources assigned to the investigation as officers are required to spend time examining each claim (Conti, 1999).

Figure 1. Picture of Elizabeth Short

There are a myriad of different motives involved when producing a false voluntary confession, the two most common are listed below.

  1. A pathological need for fame is a common motive evident in many famous cases. In 1947, an American woman, Elizabeth Short, was murdered in Los Angeles, California. The case received wide coverage due to the gruesome mutilation of the body and became known as the “Black Dahlia” murder. During the investigation, more than 30 people confessed, but the case remains unsolved to this day. Another case involves the son of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh who was kidnapped from his home in 1932. A ransom was offered but despite police efforts to locate him, he was found murdered. More than 200 people confessed to the kidnapping of the child, none of whom were involved in the crime (Macdonald & Michaud, 1987).
  2. Another motive could be to protect a loved one such as a friend or family member. It is the hope that by confessing, the spotlight is shifted away from the real perpetrator.

There are limitless motives as to why people falsely confess which can be linked to mental distortions. For example, confessing to avoid a more severe punishment associated with an original crime or self-punishment for a previous transgression. A more bizarre example involves a man confessing to impress a girlfriend (Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004).

Coerced-compliant[edit | edit source]

A coerced-compliant confession occurs when a person confesses to stop severe police interrogation methods, such as physical and psychological torture and the use of threats and promises to elicit a confession. Once the confession is obtained, the abuse ceases. Similar to voluntary confessions, a person who produces a coerced compliant confession also knows they did not commit the crime (Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004).

These police interrogation techniques were used frequently until the case of Brown v. Mississipi in the U.S. In this case, three men confessed to the murder of a man named Raymond Stewart after they were subjected to physical violence during their interrogations. During their trial, the court ruled any confession drawn out through the use of physical violence as inadmissible (Conti, 1999).

Coerced-compliant confessions were common for Prisoners of War (POWs).  During the Korean War (1950-53), North Korea stated that numerous American soldiers confessed to treasonable acts and expressed disloyalty to the U.S; this was achieved through brainwashing techniques. The American prisoners would attend communist doctrinarian lectures at least once a day where they would be forced to confess to committing treasonable acts and make a personal statement about communism. These statements would then become second nature and would eventually incorporate into their mentality (Conti, 1999).

Coerced-internalised[edit | edit source]

A coerced-internalised confession occurs when a suspect is, “innocent, but anxious, fatigued, pressured, or confused and then subjected to highly suggestive methods of police interrogation, (and) actually comes to believe that they committed the crime” (Conti, 1999). According to Kassin (1997) there are two common factors in all coerced-internalised cases:

1.    The suspect is vulnerable

2.    The suspect is presented with false evidence e.g. a rigged polygraph, other forensic tests or staged eyewitnesses

An example of this is a case involving a man named Thomas Sawyer, who was accused of raping and murdering his neighbour. Sawyer was subjected to a 16-hour interrogation, during which the investigator led him to believe he had committed the crime and had experienced alcoholic induced memory loss. They presented false forensic evidence stating his hair was found on the victim’s body, and after several hours he became confused and claimed “I guess I must of done it” (Kassin, 1997).

Quiz checkpoint 1

1 There are a limitless number of possible motives for producing a false confession.


2 In which type of confession does the individual believe they actually committed the crime?

Coerced compliant
Coerced internalised

Risk factors for false confessions[edit | edit source]

There are several risk factors that influence the incidence of false confessions; this chapter focuses on potential psychological and situational factors.

Psychological factors[edit | edit source]

Police interrogation techniques are aimed at extrovert suspects who are harder to crack and therefore require techniques that are persistent and drilling. When used on introverts however, it is possible that they find the situation overwhelming, which then increases their chances of falsely confessing to escape the situation (Eysenck, 1964). Compliance within the interrogation room can seriously affect the outcome of the interview. People who are prone to comply during social situations are particularly vulnerable if questioned. This compliance stems from an eagerness to please others and a desire to avoid confrontation and conflict (Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004).  

Interrogative suggestibility[edit | edit source]

Another factor closely related to compliance is interrogative suggestibility. How suggestible a person is during interrogations can be used to explain some individual differences when questioned (Gudjonsson & Clark, 1986). According to Gudjonsson and Clark, there are five interrelated components that facilitate interrogative suggestibility:

1.    Questioning only takes place between the suspect and interrogator

Figure 2. Image of interrogation room

2.    Two or more people are involved in the interrogation

3.    The suspect is subjected to suggestive ideas or clues

4.    The suspect accepts one or more of these suggestions

5.    Demonstrates a behavioural response to accept or reject the suggestive stimuli

Interrogative suggestibility can be measured using psychological assessments, such as the Gudjonsson suggestibility scale. High scores on interrogative suggestibility identify people who have:

  • Poor memories
  • High anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of assertiveness

Other psychological factors[edit | edit source]

Brandon and Davies (1972) proposed three psychological vulnerabilities that influence false confessions:

  • Cognitive deficits: Research has shown low intelligence predicts higher suggestibility during questioning (Gudjonsson & Clark, 1986).
  • Age: Compared to adults, children have less developed brain structures, affecting cognitive abilities such as processing speed and vocabulary skills. Therefore, juvenile offenders are more likely to have issues with delayed gratification, focusing on short-term gains and losses, and may experience impulse control problems. Studies have further noted children store less elaborative memories and are therefore more suggestible than adults (Hritz, Royer, Helm, Burd, Ojeda, & Ceci, 2015).
  • Mental disturbances: These include psychological disorders including depression, anxiety and ADHD (Gudjonsson, 1992). A study by Sigurdsson and Gudjonsson (1996) found that false confessions were closely associated with antisocial personality characteristics, which made them act more impulsively and be less concerned about legal consequences. They also noted that all the cases involving a coerced-internalised confession were male, and that females are more likely to confess in order to protect someone. This study raises the idea of a possible gender link, which has been investigated by other researchers (Kassin, 2014).

Gender analysis of false confessions by Klaver, Lee, and Rose (2008) showed that whilst females made more false confessions, the result was non-significant. This could be attributed to the use of different coping strategies, therefore indicating the relationship between gender and confessions is complex. Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson (1994) also supported the gender link and reported that 11% of males and 31% of females within their study claimed to have falsely confessed during their lifetime.

Situational factors[edit | edit source]

Eliciting a confession is the primary aim of any police interrogation. There are two methods of interrogation that are commonly used when interviewing a suspect (Meissner, Redlich, Stephen, & Evans, 2014) (See Table 1).

An accusatorial interrogation involves 3 components:

1.    Custody and isolation: The suspect is left in isolation and experiences anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty

2.    Confrontation: The interrogator presumes the suspects guilt and provides evidence, which is sometimes false, indicating their guilt and prevents them from denying their involvement in the crime

3.    Minimisation: A sympathetic interrogator attempts to gain the suspect’s trust and suggests more lenient consequences if they confess

(Kassin & Gudjonsson 2004)

The second interrogation technique is the information-gathering method which aims to build a rapport with the suspect and emphasises the importance of trust and honesty. The interrogator encourages the suspect to explain their side of the story while patiently listening. When they finish, the interrogator asks questions about any inconsistencies or contradictions in their story. The way in which interrogations are undertaken can influence the chances of a false confession. Before the interview, investigators often presume guilt, therefore introducing bias. This can lead to a more aggressive style of questioning which results in a more defensive suspect, making them seem guilty (Kassin, 2014).

Interrogation techniques summarised
Information-gathering methods    Accusatorial methods   
Establishes rapport     Establishes control    
Uses direct, positive confrontation     Uses psychological manipulation   
Employs open ended, exploratory questions    Employs closed-ended, confirmatory questions    
Primary goal is elicitation     Primary goal is confession    
Focused on cognitive cues to deception    Focuses on anxiety cues to deception    

Table.1, interrogation techniques summarised (Meissner et al., 2014).

Interrogation[edit | edit source]

Looking deeper into the interrogation itself, there are three risk factors that can lead to innocent people confessing:

1.    Interrogation duration: Statistics have shown that the average length of an interrogation is between 30 minutes to 2 hours. However, cases involving false confessions significantly differ in duration. Drizin and Leo (2004) found that in 125 proven false confession cases, 24% of interrogations lasted 6-12 hours, 39% lasted 12-24 hours with the average length being 16.3 hours. This period of time can lead to stress and issues with sleep deprivation, which impact a person’s level of attention and increases suggestibility. The impact of prolonged questioning is evident in the case of Chambers v. Florida when the suspects were questioned at random intervals, had no access to legal counsel and were questioned by up to 10 police officers at one given time.

2.    Presentation of false evidence: While this technique is legal, it has been shown on numerous occasions to produce false confessions. For example, in the Central Park Jogger case mentioned earlier, police lied to the suspects claiming there was forensic evidence linking them to the crime scene. This effect has also been shown during controlled experiments. In one study, participants were accused of crashing a computer and a confederate witness confronted some participants claiming to have seen them carry out the action. The experimenter then asked participants to sign a confession and asked whether they believed they committed the crime or not. The results showed that by presenting false evidence, the number of confessions and beliefs over guilt nearly doubled (Kassin & Kiechel, 1996).

3.    Minimisation: This involves the interviewer minimising the crime by offering the suspect moral justification and excuses as to why they committed the crime, such as suggesting they were provoked. This technique aims to lessen the anxiety associated with confessing and produces feelings of leniency over the punishment. This phenomenon was tested by Russano, Meissner, Narchet, and Kassin (2005) who found that confession rates were higher among guilty participants when leniency was promised and when minimisation was used. It was further noted that even though minimisation statements did not explicitly offer leniency, they nevertheless led people to act on the inference that leniency will follow after a confession.

Quiz checkpoint 2

1 Interrogative suggestibility is influenced by the age of the suspect.


2 Shorter interrogations have a greater influence on false confessions.


Psychological theories[edit | edit source]

Psychologists have linked the following two theories to why some people feel motivated to falsely confess to crimes.

Bem's self-perception theory[edit | edit source]

The self-perception theory was created by Bem in 1966 and has become a prominent theory in the field of social psychology. It proposes that a person’s attitudes are formed through inferring emotions based on behaviour and situational cues (Zanna, Olson, & Herman, 1987). For example, if you frequently ride your bike around a lake, based on this behaviour, you infer that you love bike riding. Self-perception theory applies best in situations where people’s beliefs are initially vague, ambiguous and weak; a state where individuals do make inferences based on their behaviour. It has been empirically tested and supported by other authors (Fazio, Zanna, & Cooper, 1976).

This theory can then be applied to explain why internalised false confessions occur. During an interrogation interview, the suspect can experience stress and become fatigued leading to confusion. Their beliefs about the specific details of the crime become vague and weak over what is true and what is not. The suspect is motivated to escape the anxiety-provoking environment, which can result in a coerced internalised confession. After this confession occurs, according to the self-perception theory, the suspect then believes their confession is genuine. This is due to the strong presence of situational cues, such as reassurance from authority figures and overt behaviour; because I confessed to the crime (the overt behaviour), I therefore committed the crime (Bem, 1966).

Two-factor theory of emotion[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Example of two-factor theory in action

The two-factor theory of emotion was proposed in 1959 by Schacter and Singer. In their original experiment, participants were informed they were testing the impact of a new drug on their eyesight. This drug was actually epinephrine which produces physiological arousal symptoms such as increased heart rate and breathing. One group was informed about possible side effects of the injection and the other group was not. They were then placed in a room with a confederate, who either acted euphoric or angry. The results showed that the participants who were not informed about the side effects were more likely to feel happier or more angry compared to the informed participants, who were more likely to interpret the emotional states of the confederate as a side effect of the drug (Sullivan, 2009). The results suggest that participants who had no explanation for their feelings were more likely to be susceptible to the emotional influences of the confederate (Conti, 1999). 

Schacter and Singer then suggested that for emotion to occur, two things must happen:

1.    A physical arousal of the nervous system e.g. increased heart rate and breathing.

2.    A cognitive interpretation of the arousal e.g. my heart rate increased because I was running.

(Dror, 2017).

During police interrogations, levels of arousal, heart rate and breathing, increase due to the stressful environment. In this situation, suggestible people can cognitively interpret these physical reactions as feelings of guilt which they believe indicates some involvement in the crime. It is this guilt that motivates the suspect to then falsely confess to the crime.

Case study

In South Carolina in 2001, a 12-year-old girl named Amanda was found murdered in her bedroom. Her father, Billy Cope, found her body and called the police. Immediately, the police focused their attention on Billy as his statement to police was seen as suspicious.

During police interviews, Billy stated his innocence 650 times despite the strong and aggressive language the police used. He underwent a polygraph test which the police reported he had “failed”, it was after this that he confessed to her murder. It was later discovered that DNA evidence collected from the scene matched a known sex offender James Sanders.

By failing the polygraph, Billy may have misinterpreted the results of his emotional reactions as a sign of guilt and which prompted his confession (Chapman, 2013).

Quiz checkpoint 3

1 A possible explanation for a false confession, according to the self-perception theory is “because I confessed I must have done it”.


2 The self-perception theory involves a cognitive interpretation of arousal symptoms.


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

This chapter provides some insight into the prevalence of false confessions within our society and has drawn attention to a number of relevant high profile cases. Three types of false confessions were discussed: voluntary, coerced-compliant and coerced internalised. Several motivators were identified; such as a pathological need for fame, protecting a loved one and escaping an aversive environment. Research supports self-perception theory in which the motivation to escape an aversive situation can alter a person’s perception of their involvement in the crime. Other studies have shown that the guilt suspects experience after cognitively interpreting their arousal symptoms can motivate them to sign a false confession. Further research should be conducted to understand the motivation behind false confessions explained by the psychology domain.

Advances in the psychological understanding of false confessions points to the need for police interrogators to be more aware of the psychological effects of questioning on suspects in order to reduce the possibility of false confessions. Caution should be exercised when drawing conclusions based on this information. Further research should be undertaken to examine other factors which may influence the signing of false confessions, such as gender.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bem, D. J. (1966). Inducing belief in false confessions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 707-710.

Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 6, 1-62.

Brandon, R., & Davies, C. (1972). Wrongful imprisonment. Mistaken convictions and their consequences. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Chapman, F. E. (2013). Coerced internalized false confessions and police interrogations: The power of coercion. Law & Psychology Review, 37, 159-192.

Conti, R. P. (1999). The psychology of false confessions. The Journal of Credibility Assessment and Witness Psychology, 2, 14-36.

Drizin, S. A., & Leo, R. A. (2004). The problem of false confessions in the post DNA world. North Carolina Law Review, 82, 891-1007.

Dror, O. E. (2017). Deconstructing the “two factors”: The historical origins of the Schachter-Singer theory of emotions. Emotion Review, 9, 7-16.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2019). Confession. Retrieved from Encyclopaedia Britannica website:

Eysenck, H. J. (1964). Crime and personality. London: Routledge.

Fazio, R. H., Zanna, M. P., & Cooper, J. (1976). Dissonance and self-perception: An integrative view of each theory’s proper domain of application. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 464-479.

Gavin, H. (2019). Criminological & forensic psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Gudjonsson, G. H., & Clark, N. (1986). Suggestibility in police interrogation: A social psychology model. Social behaviour, 1(2), 83-104.

Gudjonsson, G. H., & Sigurdsson, J. F. (1994). How frequently do false confessions occur? An empirical study among prison inmates. Psychology, Crime, and Law, 1, 21-26.

Hritz, A. C., Royer, C. E., Helm, R. K., Burd, K. A., Ojeda, K., & Ceci, S. J. (2015). Children’s suggestibility research: Things to know before interviewing a child. Anuario de Psicología Jurídica, 25(1), 3-12.

Innocence Project. (2019). False confessions & recordings of custodial interrogations. (2019). Retrieved from Innocence Project website:

Jones, R. (2019). False confession. Retrieved from WordPress website:

Kassin, S. M. (1997). The psychology of confession evidence. American Psychologist, 52, 221- 233.

Kassin, S. M. (2014). False confessions: Causes, consequences and implications for reform. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 112-121.

Kassin, S. M., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (2004). The psychology of confessions. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(2), 33-67.

Kassin, S. M., & Kiechel, K. L. (1996). The social psychology of false confessions: Compliance, internalization, and confabulation. Psychological Science, 7, 125–128.

Kassin, S. M., & Wrightsman, L. S. (1985). Confession evidence. In S. M. Kassin and L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), The psychology of evidence and trial procedure (pp. 67-94). CA: SAGE.

Klaver, J. R., Lee, Z., & Rose, V. G. (2008). Effects of personality, interrogation techniques and plausibility in an experimental false confession paradigm. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 13, 71-88.

LY Lawyers (2017). False confessions. Retrieved from LY Lawyers web site:

Macdonald, J. M., & Michaud, D. L. (1987). The confession: Interrogation and criminal profiles for police officers. Denver, CO: Apache.

McCormick, C. T. (1972). Handbook of the law of evidence (2nd ed.). St. Paul, MN: West.

Meissner, C. A., Redlich, A. D., Stephen, M., & Evans, J. R. (2014). Accusatorial and information-gathering interrogation methods and their effects on true and false confessions: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 10(4), 459-486.

Philip, K. (2019). False confessions: How innocent people confess to crime in the US Retrieved from Aljazeera website:

Russano, M. B., Meissner, C. A., Narchet, F. M., & Kassin, S. M. (2005). Investigating true and false confessions within a novel experimental paradigm. Psychological Science, 16, 481-486.

Sigurdsson, J. F., & Gudjonsson, G. H. (1996). The psychological characteristics of ‘false confessors’. A study among Icelandic prison inmates and juvenile offenders. Personality and Individual Differences, 20(3), 321-329.

Sullivan, L. E. (2009). The SAGE glossary of the social and behavioural sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Zanna, M. P., Olson, J. M., & Herman, C. P. (1987). Social Influence: The Ontario Symposium. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

External links[edit | edit source]