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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why do people give false confessions?

People will sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit. We know this in part thanks to The Innocence Project, which has used DNA evidence to exonerate almost 300 people, many of whom confessed to crimes they couldn’t have committed. Why would anyone confess in this manner? According to research by Stephanie Madon and her colleagues from Iowa State University, people confess to avoid short term (proximal) consequences at the expense of greater long term (distal) consequences.

The researchers gave 81 undergraduate volunteers a questionnaire about their past criminal and/or unethical behaviors. Depending on their answers, they would have to complete a grueling list of repetitive questions and/or meet with a police officer. In one experiment, they would have to answer the questions first, and meet with the police officer weeks later. In the second experiment, the follow up events were reversed.

In both cases, participants tried to avoid the proximal consequences and disregarded the distal repercussions. In other words, the subjects were saying, “OK fine, I did it. Can I go now?” even though they knew this would lead to trouble in a few weeks.

The authors hypothesize that innocent people may be so sure that ‘the truth will out’ that they don’t worry about making false confessions. They may feel that this strategy gets them out of the interrogation room more quickly, and that the true perpetrators will be caught before any real harm is done.