Copyright © 2007-2018 Russ Dewey
Once a suspect is detained, psychology may be useful for eliciting useful information or a confession. This activity may be viewed differently by a prosecutor (who might see it as very helpful) or a defense attorney (who might see it as tricky or unfair).
In a book titled Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, (1962), Inbau and Reid describe a wide range of tactics such as the following:
–"Display an air of confidence about the subject's guilt."
–"Sympathize with the subject by telling him that anyone else under similar conditions or circumstances might have done the same thing."
–"Point out the possibility of exaggeration on the part of the accuser or victim or exaggerate the nature and seriousness of the offense itself."
What are some tactics used to encourage criminals to confess?
None of these tactics reduces the usefulness of a confession. For example, consider the last tactic.
Suppose a law enforcement official, interrogating a suspect in a domestic violence dispute, says, "Your wife claims you hit her 40 or 50 times in 5 minutes. That seems almost impossible."
The suspect might reply, "She's lying. I couldn't have hit her more than 2 or 3 times." That is a confession, of course, and such a statement might be used in court to convict the suspect.
What is the famous tactic called "Good Cop, Bad Cop"?
One of the most famous psychological tricks used to interrogate subjects is known as "Good Cop, Bad Cop." First the subject is interrogated by a hostile, accusatory officer who threatens maximum punishment and shows no sympathy. That is the Bad Cop.
Next, a friendlier officer enters the room. The first one leaves, and the second one apologizes for the Bad Cop, saying something like, "You'll have to pardon Officer X; he gets carried away sometimes."
The new officer (the Good Cop) expresses sympathy with the suspect, assures him or her that cooperation might result in favorable treatment, and tries to establish a rapport with the suspect. Then the suspect is more likely to be honest.
Do psychological tricks sometimes produce confessions from subjects who are not really guilty? Definitely. False confessions were the specialty of Saul Kassin of Williams College. He referred to them as "false memories against the self" (Kassin, 1997).
How was a false confession produced in a laboratory experiment?
In one experiment, Kassin and Kiechel (1996) arranged for experimental subjects to participate in a fast or slow keyboarding task. Subjects were warned not to touch the ALT key, and most of them successfully avoided it.
However, at the end of the experiment, the researcher accused them of hitting the ALT key. One group heard a witness (actually a confederate of the experimenter) say she had seen the event.
Nearly 70% of the participants in all groups signed a false confession, including nearly 100% of the people in the fast-paced "witness" group. They were not simply lying; they had been convinced. By the end of the experiment, 35% of the subjects in that group produced detailed false recollections of hitting the ALT key.
False confessions are more likely if a suspect is intimidated, told of damning evidence, or led to think confession will result in approval or leniency. In Kassin's experiment, students knew they were in a psychology experiment, nothing much was at stake, and it was possible they hit the ALT key without realizing it, so they were easily convinced.
The remarkable thing is that people can make false confessions when the stakes are much higher, costing them 10 or 20 years in prison. Apparently some people are suggestible enough, or ignorant enough about the consequences, that they will confess in order to comply with the interrogator's demands and get out of an unpleasant situation.
Why should interrogations be videorecorded?
Factors that might lead a person to make a false confession, such as leading questions or unreasonable pressure from the examiner, can be seen and heard on a video recording. Experts now recommend that law enforcement officials make video recordings of all criminal interrogations so that they can prove later they elicited a confession without using excessive force or deception.
Inbau, F. E. & Reid, J. E. (1962) Criminal Interrogation and Confessions. Baltimore: Williams & Watkins.
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. (1997) The psychology of confession evidence. American Psychologist, 52, 221-233.
Write to Dr. Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org.