Psychology behind False Criminal Confessions

False confessions are not unique to the American criminal justice system. They occur all over the world. Police-induced false confessions account for a bulk of unlawful convictions. In criminal law, evidence from confessions is highly convincing yet imperfect (Gudjonsson & Pearse, 2011). For instance, the 1692 Salem witch trials in colonial American history is an ideal example of how false confessions lead to individuals being wrongfully imprisoned and convicted (Warden & Drizin, 2009). False confessions occur when a person admits to be guilty of a crime he/she did not commit. The best-known example was ‘central park five', a story of five teens who were convicted of raping a woman, who was jogging through Central Park (Warden & Drizin, 2009). In April 1989, a young female was viciously beaten and raped while jogging. The brutal attack left her in a coma and she suffered a severe memory loss upon waking up. The woman could not remember anything what happened that fateful night, when five Harlem boys were discovered to be present in the park. The teens were tried and found guilty after four of them videoed their confessions. However, after the teens had served their sentence, six to thirteen years in prison, it was suggested that the police intimidated them into the confession. In 2002, the DNA was matched a convicted serial rapist, who confessed to committing the crime alone. The five teens famously known as ‘Central Park Five' are a good example of false confessions. This paper will discuss the psychology behind false confessions and the demographic statistics of such acts.

Psychology of False Confessions

A renowned criminologist and psychoanalyst, Theodor Reik, states that false testimonials originate from the unconscious compulsive need to confess (Kassin, 2008). If the external world condemns or rejects the primeval needs for expression, the individual can only manage to express them through confession (Kassin, 2008). There are three various kinds of false confessions – voluntary, compliant, and internalized. Suspects and criminals might confess both falsely or truthfully (Kassin, 2008).

Voluntary false confessions occur when innocent individuals confess to delinquencies that they did not commit without being intimidated by the authorities (Kassin, 2008). Mostly, false confessions occur in high profile cases that receive heightened attention from media. For instance, John Mark Karr confessed voluntarily of murdering JonBenet Ramsey. Voluntary false confessions are sometimes caused by the obsession for attention (Kassin, 2008). In most circumstances, people who confess voluntary witness high profile cases reported in the media, fail to differentiate facts from fantasy, and have common psychological disorder features. Voluntary false confessions are different depending on the individuals who make them (Kassin, 2008). In other instances, they freely falsely confess to protect the actual criminal (Warden & Drizin, 2009). For example, as happened in the case of ‘Half-Ton Killer', Mayra Rosales confessed to accidentally killing her nephew by rolling on him to protect her sister, who was the real killer of the boy and who physically abused him (Kassin, 2008).

A compliant false confession transpires when a suspect is prompted to admit to a crime he/she did not commit because of the interrogation process itself (Lassiter & Meissner, 2010). Most suspects falsely confess to gain a potential reward, avoid punishments, and to escape a stressful situation. A compliant false confession is an act of social compliance by a crime suspect, who is aware he/she is innocent but submits to the pressure of law enforcement agency interrogators, who have convinced him/her that short-term benefits of confession outweigh the long-term cost of continued denial (Lassiter & Meissner, 2010). The desire to end the interrogation and avoid additional confinement can be demanding for individuals, who are desperate, socially dependent, young, anxious, and phobic of being trapped in a small room (Kassin, 2008). In many such cases, a suspect tries to avoid punishment/threat/harm, discomfort/stress of the situation, and/or gain an implied reward/promise by surrendering to the confession (Gudjonsson & Pearse, 2011)

Regarding internalized false confession, most victims are vulnerable because they are exposed to misleading and highly suggestive interrogation tactics (Kassin, 2007). An internalized false confession happens when an innocent suspect, who comes to doubt the reliability of his/her memory, knowingly gives false confession and admits to a crime without being sure if he/she actually committed it (Kassin, 2007). They do not only internalize a belief in their guilt but also submit to demands for a confession. This occurrence is illustrated in the case of 18-year-old Peter Reilly. When Reilly found his mother dead in their home, he phoned the police (Lassiter & Meissner, 2010). Reilly was administered to a polygraph by the police and told that he had failed it. Despite him not having conscious reminiscence, the indication showed that he was guilty. At first, Reilly was in denial, but then he started to doubt himself, got confused, what led to a change in his beliefs, and finally confession. Two years later, independent evidence revealed that Reilly was innocent (Lassiter & Meissner, 2010).

Motives for False Confessions

Several motives explain why individuals confess to crimes they have not committed. Occasionally, a suspect may be anxious, delusional, suggestible, compliant, and dispositionally naïve (Gudjonsson & Pearse, 2011). Hence, a slight interrogative pressure is enough to get a false confess out of the suspect. Clinical assessment and testing are useful in such cases to help determine if the suspected offender is weak or prone to confessions (Gudjonsson & Pearse, 2011). However, healthy grownups confess to delinquencies they never committed as a mean of coping with interrogation pressure from police. Studies in social psychology have exposed that individuals are influenced by the number of police officers present. This prompts them to behave in the manner that is harmful to themselves or people around them (Gudjonsson & Pearse, 2011).

Risk Factors for False Confessions

False confession has dispositional risk factors. It is evident that not every suspect is naïve to become a false confessor (Kassin et al., 2010). The factors vary, but the majority of confessors desire to avoid confrontation and to please others. Other risk factors to false confessions are poor remembrance, lower self-esteem, and timidity (Kassin et al., 2010). Juvenile defendants are also among the innocent at risk. They are overrepresented in the category of known false confessors (Kassin et al., 2010). Teenagers are likely to comply with the police figures and trust false evidence presented (Kassin et al., 2010). Studies show that juveniles demonstrate less understanding of their Miranda rights compared to adults (Kassin et al., 2010). When under pressure, teenagers are likely to confess falsely.

Mental impairment is yet another risk factor related to gullibility and compliance (Redlich, Kulish, & Steadman, 2011). Individuals with mental problems have no understanding of their Miranda rights and are likely to respond with ‘yes’ to every question (Kassin et al., 2010). These people stand a high chance of internalized false confession because they are highly misinformed (Redlich, Kulish, & Steadman, 2011). A mental disorder can influence false confessions trend to rise (Redlich, Kulish, & Steadman, 2011). A mental condition has typical symptoms such as lack of self-control, mood disturbance, anxiety, breakdowns, monitoring problems, and partial memories and perceptions (Redlich, Kulish, & Steadman, 2011). These symptoms may cause suspects to offer false confessions to the authorities throughout the interrogations (Redlich, Kulish, & Steadman, 2011).

Normally, a typical interrogation contains three processes that include isolation, confrontation, and minimization (Klaver, Lee, & Rose, 2008). The authority interrogators are taught to isolate the suspect from their familiar environment and question them in the police custody, likely an interrogation room (Klaver, Lee, & Rose, 2008). However, interrogation time is a risk factor. The total time of an inquiry should last 2 hours. In cases when the suspect is interrogated for more than 2 hours, a study shows that it is when false confessions are recorded (Klaver, Lee, & Rose, 2008). Besides, the authorities approach the suspects with strong assertions of guilty, hence showing that resistance is futile (Klaver, Lee, & Rose, 2008). Despite a lack of evidence, interrogators are taught to hinder the culprit from issuing undeniable evidence of their guilt, to refute alibis, and denials (Klaver, Lee, & Rose, 2008). The innovation of a polygraph came in handy for cases of false evidence. In many occasions, internalized and compliant false confessions had been extracted by authority interrogators who told culprits that their polygraph was negative, even when they did not lie (Klaver, Lee, & Rose, 2008).

Demographics and False Confessions

Studies show that blacks are more likely to give false confessions than whites are (Najdowski, 2011). The disparity has been studied in researches that looked at the cross-cultural differences in nonverbal communication styles. These differences cause black accused to appear more dishonest and, thus, authority interrogators assert more pressure on them to confess (Najdowski, 2011). Besides, the differences in speech patterns lead blacks, who are accused of crimes, to react to false allegations with defensiveness, hostility, and denials, what solidifies suspicions of the interrogators. Therefore, when intimidating tactics are deployed on African American suspects, they are more likely to confess (Klaver, Lee, & Rose, 2008).

According to Najdowski (2011), stereotype threat theory also contributes to the racial disparity in false confessions. The stereotype threat is the anxiety an individual experiences when at risk of being labeled by the traits that relate to that person’s group (Najdowski, 2011). The concern about stereotype threat ironically affects the behavior and performance that raises the prospect of a suspect confirming the stereotype by mistake. The stereotype threat theory has been confirmed in various studies in non-criminal justice settings. In their study, Spencer, Logel, and Davies (2016) confirmed that whenever the stereotype that blacks are deficient in intelligence is applied on standardized tests, white students perform better compared to black students. Najdowski, (2011) applies the concept of stereotype threat to questionings by analyzing its effects on black witnesses. Najdowski (2011) states that black witnesses know the stereotypes linked to delinquency and deceit during court process performed by white judges. In such situations, black witnesses try to control their behavior to appear truthful and to counter stereotypes, thus they seem less credible, and nervous (Najdowski, 2011). The same process in interrogations also affects black suspects (Najdowski, 2011). Black and white suspects are encouraged to give the correct impression in interrogation chambers where authorities evaluate and judge their guilt. The negative stereotypes about blacks make them feel more pressure even if they are innocent (Najdowski, 2011). Najdowski (2011), in detail explains the psychological mechanisms that make suspects respond to stereotype threat by succumbing to pressure with false confession, interrogators use forced questioning strategies, and blacks act deviously.

Studies exploring stereotype threat reveal that black suspects may encounter more stereotype threat when paired with white interrogators. Najdowski (2011), in support realized that black suspects appear suspicious whenever they are paired with white detectives. In such cases, not guilty black suspects encounter stereotype threat in interrogations that causes them to experience cognitive load, self-regulatory efforts, and arousal (Najdowski, 2011). These psychological mechanisms might cause the innocent black suspects to exhibit nonverbal behaviors related to dishonesty, hence raise the possibility of the authorities to view them as not innocent (Redlich, Kulish, & Steadman, 2011). When interrogating black suspects, investigators use forceful tactics and more pressure compared to white suspects (Gudjonsson & Pearse, 2011). Therefore, black defendants are more likely to confess falsely to escape interrogation than the whites (Najdowski, 2011).

Racial minorities in less advantaged populations are targets of pressured confessions, which can be attributed to the effect of mass imprisoning (Tepfer, Nirider, & Tricarico, 2010). President Reagan's War on Drugs was simultaneous with the support for mass confinement. The targeted African-American youth from poor communities remained an easy target for authorities (Feld, 2006). It is believed that disadvantaged neighborhood has high crime incidents, thus, the administration continues to focus more on such areas. Besides, the nation has linked criminals and poverty hence making suspects in that category more vulnerable to criminal incriminating (Tepfer, Nirider, & Tricarico, 2010). Teenagers easily manipulated by police thus become targeted victims. Many of these kids are not aware of their right for counsel (Tepfer, Nirider, & Tricarico, 2010). The young suspects are most of the time persuaded to signing incriminating statements with the promise of fictional release (Tepfer, Nirider, & Tricarico, 2010). Although it is not logically possible to distrust people trusted with public protection, the authorities are often dishonest. Crooked witnesses are hired by the authorities to attest to a suspect's involvement in a crime regardless whether it is true or not (Feld, 2006). There is an increased likelihood of fictitious incriminating statements and false confession because minorities are likely to be arrested as minors (Tepfer, Nirider, & Tricarico, 2010). Since children are easy to manipulate, they are vulnerable to giving false confessions (Feld, 2006). Several Hispanic and African-American males’ who were detained as children in urban neighborhoods and were forced into accepting statements that differed from the evidence of scene of the crime were exonerated (Tepfer, Nirider, & Tricarico, 2010). The New York City Central Park Five is the best example of the dynamic between the authority and minority youth. Besides, Dixmoor Five and Chicago’s Englewood Four are yet another perfect example (Kassin, 2008).


False confess include three various types, including internalized, voluntary, and compliant. Internalized confession happens when an innocent suspect confesses falsely knowingly though having doubts about him/her committing the crime. Voluntary false confession is a suspect’s voluntarily confession to a crime without intimidation from interrogators. In compliant false confession, a suspect is impelled by the interrogators into admitting to a crime, the/she never committed. Suspects confess falsely because of pressure and intimidation from police. The desire to avoid confrontation also makes some suspects to give a false confession. Others have self-esteem issues and are less confident hence are prone to submitting a false confession. Minors are also vulnerable because they lack knowledge about their legal rights; therefore, they comply to false confession easily. Moreover, mentally ill persons are likely to give false confession since the police can easily manipulate them due to their partial memories. Concerning race, black suspects are more likely to give a false confession. Various researches on cross-cultural differences in nonverbal communication styles state that black suspects seem dishonest, and police uses pressure to make them confess. Black defendants react to false allegations with denials, hostility, and defensiveness, therefore making the authority to apply force to get a confession out of them. A stereotype threat study confirms that black offenders are viewed as less intelligence. When white interrogators are paired with black defendants, the suspects usually feel more stereotype threat, mostly those that are innocent. Besides, the poor population also is a vulnerable and easily affected by the police to give false confessions. Furthermore, juvenile suspects from the minority communities also suffer the pressure of false confessing coerced by the interrogators. False confession has existed for a long time and still exists; the legislators are working hard to find solutions to this issue in the judiciary systems.