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The Psychology of False Confessions

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Criminal Defense Lawyer, Harrisburg, PA

Police departments in at least 20 states, not including Pennsylvania, now require the electronic recording of interrogations of specified felonies or all crimes.  Electronic recording of interrogations has positive effects–it discourages police misconduct, improves professionalism, minimizes disputes about what occurred and cuts down on the number of motions to suppress a statement.

Why is the recording of interrogations important?

Research demonstrates that certain conditions of an interrogation can lead to persuasion, pressure, minimization and extended interrogations that may lead to a false confessions.  The unrepresented suspect is distinctly disadvantaged when isolated in a room with a trained detective.  At the outset, the suspect may be convinced to sign a waiver by the detective who perhaps dismisses the waiver as “just a formality” or convinces the suspect that having a lawyer will just complicate matters and slow things down to the suspect’s detriment.  Worse, the suspect may be a youth, mentally ill, or developmentally disabled, or possess a combination of these at-risk features.  The suspect is ill-prepared for the subsequent onslaught of guilt-presumptive accusations, attacks on denials, deception, interpersonal pressure, and inducement — sometimes even threats and promises. The purpose of this onslaught is to produce high levels of anxiety, deplete the suspect’s mental resources, and lead the suspect to conclude that his choices are ultimately to confess and minimize his damage or to be found guilty by other means.  The recorded interrogation has the potential to make the playing field more level by inhibiting some of the more egregious interrogation tactics and making interrogator-suspect interaction available for replay by fact finders.

The Techniques and Psychology of Modern Interrogation

Pressure and Persuasion

The most common type of police interrogation is a two-pronged use of “pressure and persuasion.”  There is pressure created by direct accusations of guilt.  Early on in the interrogation, the detective may express a very high level of confidence that the suspect is guilty and that the purpose of the interrogation is not to determine whether the suspect is guilty. Instead, the purpose is to find out why he committed the crime (or the details, or who else was involved, or what other crimes the suspect has committed).  These unwavering expressions of confidence in the suspect’s guilt are called direct positive confrontation, confrontation, and accusation.  It is important to note that these statements are often exaggerations or outright lies. Yes, the police may lie to you to get you to confess; it’s legal.  The detective sometimes has concluded that the suspect is guilty based on inferences about the suspect’s verbal or nonverbal behavior prior to the interrogation.  The expression of confidence in the suspect’s guilt, however, is a strategic statement designed to convince the suspect that he is caught and that he has no chance of persuading the detective of his innocence.

Minimization of the Conduct

Investigators will also attempt to minimize the accused’s conduct.  Minimization may come across as friendly and caring.  Whereas, accusations, attacks on denials, evidence ploys and interpersonal pressure are designed to cause the suspect to perceive that he is caught and resistance is futile, minimization tactics and other inducements are designed to motivate the suspect to stop denying and start admitting guilt. One common form of minimization is the offering of rationales and excuses that seemingly justify the crime and imply that the suspect is guilty. These techniques are sometimes called “theme development” in police manuals and scenarios by scholars. Investigators present the motives and explanations as reasonable or even morally (and sometimes even legally) justifiable excuses, such as “you recently lost your job, your only source of income, and you have a wife and kid to take care of.” Other rationales and excuses include “the act was impulsive” or “the victim deserved what he got.

Length of Interrogation

Another risk factor for false confession is the length of an interrogation. Lengthy detention and interrogation is a significant risk factor for false confessions because the longer an interrogation lasts, the more likely the suspect will become fatigued and depleted of the physical and psychological resources necessary to resist the pressures and stresses of accusatory interrogation. 

If you’ve been accused of a crime or have falsely confessed to a crime, you need to have your case reviewed by a professional.  You may contact us online or via telephone for a free consultation.

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