The danger of false confessions is very, very real

In a criminal trial, prosecutors must prove the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It is the highest evidentiary standard, and some pieces of evidence hold more weight with jurors. “I did it” is one of the most powerful pieces of evidence, but is it reliable?

False confessions are the basis of many wrongful convictions. It is difficult for many people to understand how someone could confess to a crime they know they did not commit. A research study published in the journal Psychological Science shows how susceptible the mind can be to outside influence, even pushing people as far as to believe they actually committed a crime that never happened.

Sixty university students participated in the study. Researchers surveyed the students’ caretakers to gather information about their childhoods. Researchers then told the students two different stories. One story actually happened when the students was anywhere from 11 to 14 years old.

The second story was false. It involved either an emotional event or a crime that never happened, but the researchers wove into the tale some true details about their lives at the time.

The students were then asked to retell the stories immediately and again in two more sessions. The interview sessions were always friendly. When students could not remember aspects of the story, researchers helped them use memory-retrieval techniques.

At the end of the study, 71 percent of the students who were told the tale about the false crime were convinced it actually occurred. Over 50 percent of the students who were fed a story about a violent crime, like assault, believed they had committed it during their childhood.

The tactics the researchers used mimicked those police frequently use in interrogations, like feeding bits of truth to suspects. False confessions are not as difficult to create as one might think.