Coerced False Confessions

Coerced False Confessions

Author: Jeff Bryson

To investigate and explore the phenomenon of coerced false confessions in the U.S. Justice System.

As of early 2011, there have been approximately 265 exonerations through the use of DNA. Many DNA-exonerated individuals falsely confessed to the crime of which they were convicted. There are two questions that must be asked.

From an academic/scientific perspective: What interrogation tactics are likely to lead to a false confession? Are there psychological characteristics at play in coerced false confessors?

From an ideological/philosophical/constitutional perspective: What is the purpose of interrogating for confession? If there is evidence to prove guilt a confession is not needed. If there is no evidence to prove guilt, are not deceptive and coercive tactics (soft and hard) a violation against right to self-incrimination?

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brief literature review

Coerced False Confessions

Since the incorporation of DNA in criminal prosecution, the problem of coerced false confessions has come into sharper focus.  According to the Innocence Project (n.d.) 265 individuals convicted of a violent crime have been exonerated through DNA.  Kassin (2008) noted that 20-25% of DNA exonerations came for individuals who had confessed to the crime (p. 249).  Klaver, Lee, and Rose (2008) noted, “In simulated juror studies, confession evidence has demonstrated stronger impact on verdicts than eyewitness testimony or character evidence” (p. 71).  On the other hand, Leo and Liu (2009) found that potential jurors are open to expert testimony regarding coerced confessions.

Kassin (2008) identified three types of false confessions.  Voluntary false confessions are those made “without prompting from the police,” (p. 249).  Compliant false confessions are those in which, “the suspect acquiesces in order to escape from a stressful situation, avoid punishment, or gain a promise or implied reward,” (p. 249).  The compliant false confession stems from police interrogation.  The compliant confessor still believes in her or his innocence.  The third type is the internalized false confession.  Kassin defines this type as “those in which innocent but vulnerable suspects, exposed to highly suggestive interrogation tactics, not only confess but come to believe they committed the crime in question” (p. 249).  Because these individuals believe they committed the crime, they may be likely to pass a polygraph admitting to the crime.

The question for police interrogators is how to get a person to confess when that individual does not wish to confess.  Police receive training in various interrogation tactics aimed at acquiring this confession.  This issue is similar to the issue explored by Lifton ([1961] 1989) related to the communist reeducation camps in China during the 1950s.  Using a qualitative method, Lifton identified eight tactics of “thought reform” used by the Chinese to acquire confessions – by both westerners and Chinese nationals – that they had committed crimes against the state of China.  The underlying issue in both is the belief in the guilt of the interrogation subject and the desire to obtain a confession from that individual.

Yet, the question remains as to whether individual personality variables represent an accurate explanation to why innocent individuals confess, or whether the interrogation tactics are implicated in the false confession.  Using a case study method, Ofshe (1989) concluded that interrogation tactics are engaged to make it seem logical to the individual to confess to a crime they did not commit.  Ofshe encourages police interrogators to use an attitude of seeking information when interrogating a suspect, rather than using the interrogation to confirm a preconceived hypothesis of guilt.

Kassin (2008) noted that police training includes recognition of when a suspect is lying.  Yet Kassin’s review of the research on police ability to detect deception in a suspect showed that the techniques used by interrogators are not effective.  Kassin (2005) and Kassin and Norwick (2004) further found that individuals most vulnerable to false confession are those who are the most innocent and simply trust the criminal justice system – 81% of innocent individuals are likely to waive their Miranda rights, while only 36% of guilty individuals waive their rights.

False confessions possess two possible negative consequences.  The primary issue is that an innocent person is convicted and may be sentenced to death or a lengthy prison sentence, while the guilty individual remains at large and is a risk to the community.  The secondary issue is the significant cost of prosecution and wasted police resources.

The current research seeks to understand the problem of why innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit.  Focusing on interrogation tactics, the research will investigate how a minimizing approach coupled with a plausible explanation used by the interrogator in a lengthy interrogation of an innocent individual impact the individual’s propensity to confess to the crime.  Kassin (2008) defines minimization as, “a sympathetic interrogator morally justifies the crime, leading the suspect to expect leniency upon confession” (p. 250).  A plausible explanation of a crime relates to the investigator providing an explanation to the suspect of how that suspect could have committed the crime.  This may come from the suspect themselves when the interrogator encourages the suspect to dream about how the crime may have occurred.  For example, Kassin (2008) refers to the case Michael Crows who was convinced that it was plausible for him to have Dissociative Identity Disorder with a “good Michael” and a “bad Michael.”  Since the bad Michael committed the crime, the good Michael had no recollection.  Michael confessed to the crime and believed he had actually committed the crime.  This tactic is also similar to Lifton’s ([1961] 1989) concept of mystical manipulation.  The suspect became ungrounded from reality and created a story that pleased the investigator.  Prosecutors decided not to pursue charges after Michael once his sister’s blood appeared on the clothing of a homeless drifter (p. 249).

Coerced false confessions are costly to both the falsely convicted individual and the public.  Research should focus on determining which interrogation tactics are likely to result in false confessions while developing tactics to minimize the likelihood of false confessions.  Further, research should focus on developing interrogation tactics to assist interrogators in getting to the truth, rather than simply obtaining a confession.  What is missing from the research, however, is direct investigation into actual cases of coerced false confessions.  The current research proposes to use file reviews of cases in which a suspect confessed to a crime, experienced conviction either by plea or trial, and subsequently exonerated through DNA evidence.

Literature Review

False confessions present a significant cost to communities and individuals convicted on false confession evidence.  When an innocent suspect receives a conviction, communities are placed at risk as the real perpetrator remains at large.  The costs of prosecution can drain public treasuries.  Further, an innocent individual may receive a lengthy period of incarceration or a sentence of death.  Kassin (2008, p. 249) identified three types of false confessions.  The “voluntary” false confession represents individuals who confess to crimes without police intervention.  Voluntary false confessors are typically motivated by the perceived secondary gain of admitting to a crime they did not commit.  Compliant false confessions are those in which, “the suspect acquiesces in order to escape from a stressful situation, avoid punishment, or gain a promise or implied reward,” (p. 249).  The compliant confessor still believes in her or his innocence.  The third type is the internalized false confession. Kassin defines this type as “those in which innocent but vulnerable suspects, exposed to highly suggestive interrogation tactics, not only confess but come to believe they committed the crime in question” (p. 249).  Because these individuals believe they committed the crime, they are likely to pass a polygraph admitting to the crime.  The current study aims to investigate the interrogation tactics used by law enforcement that increase the likelihood of obtaining a false – rather than a true – confession.

This section reviews the current literature on the problem of false confession.  The study of coerced false confessions can assist law enforcement in minimizing the likelihood of false confession by an innocent person.  Two areas of inquiry are necessary for investigating false confessions, psychological factors of suspects and interrogation tactics of law enforcement. Much of the research on false confession assesses both areas.

Ofshe (1998) used a case study method to examine the rationality of making false confession, and identified three interrogation tactics that can lead to false confession.  The first, “convincing the suspect that his situation is hopeless,” involves the use of deception and fabrication of evidence against the suspect.  The second tactic incorporates “manipulating the suspect’s emotional state by attempting to make the stress of continuing to deny responsibility greater than the suspect’s anxiety about admitting guilt.”  This tactic includes lengthy interrogations, while isolating the suspect from social support.  The third tactic involves, “manipulating the suspect’s expectations about the level of punishment that will follow from immediately confessing,” (paragraph 7).  Ofshe’s exploration of false confession is based in part on the work of Lifton ([1961] 1989), who used qualitative interviews with victims of the Chinese reeducation camps in the 1950s.  Lifton identified 8 tactics of thought reform (or brainwashing as it was popularly labeled) that led to confessions of crime against the state (People’s Republic of China).  Ofshe laid important groundwork in the study of false confession by examining actual cases of individuals exonerated after falsely confessing.  However, Ofshe’s study is limited in that it did not investigate the statistical significance of interrogation tactics and their correlation with false confession.  Further, Ofshe did not complete in depth interviews and case file reviews of individuals exonerated after such a confession.

Investigating the phenomenon of false confessions involves significant ethical issues (Kassin and Kiechel, 1996).  Designing a real world experimental study that intentionally subjects suspects to interrogation tactics thought to result in false confession represents inhumane and cruel research tactics.  Kassin and Kiechel designed an experiment to investigate the correlation of interrogation tactics with the likelihood of falsely confessing to an act not committed by the intervention.  Subjects were informed they were participating in an examination of reaction time, and typed letters on a computer keyboard as they were read by a member of the research team, but whom the subject believed to be another participant. Some individuals had the letters read at a fast pace, others at a slow pace.  All subjects were told not to press the Alt key.  At a specified time during the experiment, when the subjects typed a key close to the Alt key, the computer turned off and the researcher informed the subject that they had hit the Alt key, that data had been lost, and that they would have to reschedule to complete their part of the experiment.  The researchers then used various interrogation tactics to acquire a signature on a confession document.  Another confederate (who was actually a member of the research team) then sat in the waiting room with the subject, and simply stated they had heard something and wondered what happened.  If the subject explicitly stated they had pressed the wrong key, they were coded as internalizing their confession.  Internalizing the confession is defined as the subject believing they had in fact pressed the wrong key.  None of the subjects had pressed the wrong key.  Interrogation tactics used by the researchers involved providing a plausible explanation (for example, reminding the subject of the speed with which they were typing) of how they could have accidentally pressed the Alt, and providing evidence that they had made errors in other key strokes during the typing experiment.  Further, for some subjects, the individual reading the letters admitted to witnessing the subject pressing the Alt key, while some subjects experienced no such witness testimony.  Those who participated in the fast typing condition were much more likely to confess and internalize their confession.  Kassin and Kiechel concluded, “The present study provides strong initial support for the provocative notion that the presentation of the false incriminating evidence – an interrogation ploy that is common among the police – can induce people to internalize blame for outcomes they did not produce,” (p. 127).  Kassin and Kiechel (1996) noted that the pressing of a computer key with no possible criminal consequences might affect the generalizability of the results. Further, the use of college students as subjects may have a similar impact. Kassin and Kiechel did note, however, that college students have a demonstrated level of intelligence that may act as a buffer against coercive interrogation tactics.

The Kassin and Kiechel (1996) study has been used as paradigm for subsequent studies of coerced false confession.  Horselenberg, Merckelbach, and Josephs (2003) used the same experimental design but also explored other variables, such as suggestibility and fantasy-proneness.  They found that the personality factors were unrelated to false confessions, but replicated Kassin and Kiechel’s results. Forest, Wadkins, and Larson (2006) also replicated Kassin and Kiechel, finding that interrogation tactics, but not personality variables, correlated to false confessions. Klaver, Lee, and Rose (2008) found similar results.

Russano, M. B., Meissner, C. A., Narchet, F. M., and Kassin, S. M. (2005) built further on the work of Kassin and Kiechel in developing a further paradigm in which the research subject was accused of violating a rule in the experiment.  They found that when interrogators minimized the behavior (describing the cheating as less serious) and made an “explicit offer of leniency” (p. 483) the likelihood of both false and true confessions increased.

Using a sample of undergraduate psychology students who received course credit for participation, Davis, Leo, and Follette (2010) utilized a case review method.  Subjects read one of two shortened versions of an actual interrogation of a suspect alleged to have molested his step-granddaughter.  In one scenario, subjects were instructed to imagine the suspect was innocent; in the other scenario, the suspect was to be imagined as guilty.  Following the reading of the interrogation transcript, subjects then identified their choice for the suspect’s confession and what choices the detective had available.  Further, subjects rated the “beneficence” (p. 447) of the detective on a 9-point Likert-type scale, and rated how likely the suspect would be convicted based on the evidence presented in the transcripts. Using this method, the researchers found that individuals were more likely to falsely confess when they believed there was strong evidence against them coupled with the detective using a “sympathetic” (p. 442) stance towards the suspect.  The sympathetic detective is defined as the interrogator presenting the offense as less serious than actuality, “thereby paving the way to suggest how one might be able to do so,” (i.e., commit the crime, p. 442). This research is significant in that it uses an alternative experimental design (case reviews by an observer separated from the interrogation) with similar findings to Kassin and Kiechel (1996) and those researchers who used their paradigm.

Of further concern is the fact that false confession influences eyewitness testimony.  Hasel and Kassin (2009) investigated the impact of false confession on eyewitness identification using an experimental design.  A member of the research team walked into the room where the subject was waiting and stole a laptop computer.  In Phase I, subjects then identified the thief through a line-up.  The line-up was absent the actual perpetrator.  In Phase II, subjects returned two days later and were told either that the subject they had identified had confessed or denied, or that that another suspect had confessed, or that all suspects had adamantly denied.  Two ANOVAs were performed, one for the group that identified a suspect from the original line-up and one for the group that correctly stated the suspect was not present in the original line-up.  Each subject rated their confidence in their identification.  The independent variable was the feedback regarding suspect confession (ordinal measurement), while the dependent variables were the identification/lack of identification of the thief (nominal measurement) and the confidence level in that choice (ratio measurement).  When subjects were told the suspect they identified had confessed, their confidence rating in their eyewitness testimony increased.  Those who identified no suspect in Phase I became more likely to identify the confessor as the suspect in Phase II.  The underlying question answered by Hasel and Kassin was whether false confession alters eyewitness evidence.  They found that false confession results in faulty eyewitness testimony.

The experimental research is consistent that interrogation tactics used by interrogators, rather than psychological factors of suspects, correlate to false confessions. However, with the exception of Ofshe (1989), the investigations either used non-criminal college students in an experimental design, or used case-reports to gauge participants’ perceptions. The research, then, uses case studies, mock false confession paradigms with non-criminal subjects, or a survey design measuring perceptions of individuals using real-world interrogation interviews.  While Ofshe did explore real cases of coerced false confessions, he engaged a qualitative case-study method with four cases. It is therefore necessary to examine real world cases of false confessions, using a quantitative analysis of case files to identify the interrogation tactics identified by the current experimental research.




Davis, D., Leo, R. A., and Follette, W. C. (2010). Selling confession: Setting the stage with the “sympathetic detective with a time-limited offer.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 26(4), 441-457. doi: 10.1177/ 1043986210377229

Forrest, K. D., Wadkins, T. A., and Larson, B. A. (2006). Suspect personality, police interrogations, and false confessions: Maybe it is not just the situation. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(3), 621-628. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.09.002

Hasel, L. E., and Kassin, S. M.  (2009).  On the presumption of evidentiary independence:  Can confessions corrupt eyewitness identifications?  Psychological Science, 20(1), 122-126.  doi:  10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02262.x

Horselenberg, R., Merckelbach, H., and Josephs, S. (2003). Individual differences and false confessions: A conceptual replication of Kassin and Kiechel (1996). Psychology, Crime & Law, 9, 1-8. doi: 10.1080/1068316021000057631

Innocence Project. (n.d.). Innocence project case files. Retrieved from http://www. innocenceproject.org/know/

Kassin, S. M. (2005). On the psychology of confessions: Does innocence put innocents at risk? American Psychologist, 60(3), 215-228. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.3.215

Kassin, S. M. (2008). False confessions: Causes, consequences, and implications for reform. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(4), 249-253. doi: 10.1111/j.1467- 8721.2008.00584.x

Kassin, S. M., and Kiechel, K. L. (1996). The social psychology of false confessions: Compliance, internalization and confabulation. Psychological science, 7(3), 125-128. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com.capella.edu/ehost/pdfviewer?hid=112&side= 72260e28-2a3e-4440-a9ae-7999c2d840787%40sessionmgr113&vid=3

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Leo, R. A., and Liu, B. (2009). What do potential jurors know about police interrogation techniques and false confessions? Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 27(3), 381-399. doi: 10.1002/bsl.872

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Ofshe, R. (1989). Coerced confessions: The logic of seemingly irrational action. Cultic Studies Journal, 6(1), 1-15. Retrieved from www.icsa.com (available only to members of the International Cultic Studies Association).

Russano, M. B., Meissner, C. A., Narchet, F. M., and Kassin, S. M. (2005). Investigating true and false confessions within a novel experimental paradigm. Psychological Science, 16(6), 481-486.

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