Police Interrogations Can Lead to False Confessions

How and why people confess to a crime might have an important psychological basis. Police interrogations are sometimes intimidating and coercive. At times, these even lead to false confessions. Something called “temporal discounting” is a psychological process by which people consider immediate consequences as certain and distant consequences as uncertain. This might be a reason for criminal suspects exhibiting short-sightedness during police interrogation and making a confession. The current study tested this hypothesis in a laboratory setting. The study found the hypothesis to be true.

Perhaps the most important aspect of police investigative interrogation is obtaining a confession from a suspect. Sometimes false confessions to a crime are obtained and then the suspect is exonerated in courts. Wrongful convictions based on confessions raise concerns about civil liberties and the criminal justice system in general. Previous studies by behavioral scientists and legal scholars have thrown light on how police interrogation methods influence both the guilty and innocent suspects into making a confession. The studies have also shown ways by which the situation may be improved. The current study investigated the psychological aspects behind confession by a guilty suspect or an innocent person. It checked whether the individuals considered immediate consequences as being more important than long-term ones when they decided to make a confession.

* Two experiments were conducted. In the first experiment, the participants answered questions about their prior criminal and unethical behaviors. Two consequences were designed. Answering a set of repetitive questions was designed as an immediate consequence of admitting and denial. Meeting a police officer after a few weeks was the delayed consequence that was put forth.
* The participants were divided into three subgroups, with one group serving as a control group without experimental manipulation.
* In the second experiment, the procedures, measures and materials were the same as in the first. However, this time the designed immediate consequence was a meeting with police officer and the delayed consequence was answering repetitive questions.
* A real police officer was not present on the premises. But such an impression was created using props, in order to make the participants believe that the consequences were “real.”

* The participants thought more of the immediate consequences of confession, rather than its consequences in the future. The admission rate for denial of a criminal and unethical behavior was 7.92 percent, when the participants considered proximal consequences.
* The admission rate for denial of a criminal and unethical behavior was 4.57 percent, when the participants considered distal consequences.
* The admission rate was 5.52 percent for the control group.
* This trend did not change even in the second experiment, where the consequence conditions were reversed.

Next steps/Shortcomings
This study was carried out in a laboratory setting where real physical atmosphere of police interrogation was lacking. Also, the consequences designed were less severe than the punishment for crime in real situations. The intimidation and coercive element of police interrogation was absent in this experiment performed on students of psychology. So the question remains whether the findings are applicable to real-life situations.

This study provides experimental proof for the hypothesis that people consider immediate consequences of making a confession more significant than the long term consequences. Police interrogation methods usually include intimidation, physical isolation and presentation of false evidence. Such methods make a guilty suspect think more about the immediate negative consequences. They tended to lose sight of the long-term consequences such as punishment by a court. Escaping from the police methods might be a motive behind false confessions. False confessions could also wrongly influence ensuing conviction proceedings against the confessor. The study points to a need for reform in police interrogation techniques, in order to protect innocent people and safeguard the human rights of a guilty suspect.

For More Information:
Temporal Discounting: The Differential Effect of Proximal and Distal Consequences on Confession Decisions
Publication Journal: Law and Human Behavior, February 2011
By Stephanie Madon; Max Guyll; Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.


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