Why Do the Innocent Confess?

By Valerie Ross | August 12, 2011 12:17 pm

In the justice system, a confession is often treated as proof of guilt—and yet, a surprising number of people confess to crimes they didn’t commit. In its latest issue, the Economist reviews recent research showing just how frequently innocent people ‘fess up, and what factors lead them to do it.

When an experimenter falsely accused subjects of crashing a computer, 25% of them confessed even though they’d done nothing wrong, one study found. If the accusation was corroborated by a (lying) eyewitness, that number jumped to 80%. In another study, participants falsely accused of cheating on a task were told that authority figures were processing evidence that could prove their guilt—in this case, a tape. Half the people confessed, even though they must have known the tape recorded their actual, innocent behavior. This is particularly worrying because police often use this same tactic when waiting to get DNA or fingerprint results.

While the situations—research subject vs. crime suspect—are of course quite different, the parallels are enough to give one pause.

Read the full story at the Economist.

Image courtesy of Pearson Scott Foresman / Wikimedia Commons

  • Brian Too


    1). If the person is not actually sure what they did, or did not do, and an authority figure insists they did something, many people will assume “I must have done it”;

    2). In the justice system in particular, innocence or guilt are fluid states in the investigation and negotiated deals are possible. If a suspect believes they will be found guilty no matter what, then a frequent goal shifts to simply minimizing the punishment. Even an innocent person who admits guilt can sometimes negotiate a deal with little or no punishment, which can be a compelling bargain;

    3). I believe that the right of police to lie to a suspect can sometimes be extremely pernicious. If they claim that they have absolute proof of guilt to an innocent person, the accused is placed in a very bad situation. They either insist upon their innocence and risk maximum punishment (the justice system likes the presumed guilty to admit their guilt), or they confess and try to get a lower sentence, even if the lower sentence is still tough.

    The conflict here is clear. Either the accused raises the stakes and wins (or loses) big, or they lie and accept a poor, but at least known outcome.

  • http://www.todaybet.net στοίχημα

    hmmmm… Very interesting!!!

  • tiddas

    It makes one wonder the rate a guilty person will confess vs maintain innocence. The whole thing seems set up to give inaccurate information as to guilt or innocence.

  • Oblivious

    Ha, I’ve been in a situation where I was being told I was going to be detained because the police “knew” I’d committed a crime. I knew they were full of crap and told them so. My ‘cohorts’ in this supposed crime (there were two other people) both confessed to something they didn’t do. I got off without any repercussions but my acquaintances both relieved six months of house arrest, were prohibited from leaving town, and went through no fewer than 4 court hearings; all for something they were tricked into admitting doing to a handful of lying hard up cops in a small town.

    Our justice system isn’t the only failing one in the US.

  • Charles Brandenburg

    I have had 3 seperate situation’s, where I have been falsely accused, arrested at gunpoint, and wrongfully incarcerated, while having to jump through every legal hoop, and make every court appearance, to prove my innocence.
    The 1rst occurrence, was in the Military

  • http://kforcounter.blogspot.com Cody

    My dad told me that if I ever get questioned/arrested by police for any reason not to say a word until I consult a lawyer. Then he pointed out that although our court system is meant to treat the accused as innocent until proven guilty, law enforcement agencies tend to treat suspects as guilty until proven innocent.

    These studies are really interesting—throw in all the flaws of eyewitness accounts and one begins to wonder just how righteous our justice system actually is.

  • Charles Brandenburg

    I have had 3 seperate situation’s, where I have been falsely accused, arrested at gunpoint, and wrongfully incarcerated, while having to jump through every legal hoop, and make every court appearance, to prove my innocence.
    1) The 1rst time was in the Military. I was wrongfully accused, detained, interrogated by C.I.D., and denied a JAG Lawyer, to help me prove my innocence. While under lock down, the Crime’s, I was accused of were continuing to occur, at other Battalion’s down the Road. I can’t be in 2 place’s at once. I never once got an apology, from my Superior Officer’s, or my peer’s. I asked why I was denied a JAG Lawyer, and was told, “If you need a lawyer, you must be guilty”, and “When you signed up for the Army, you signed all your Constitutional Right’s away, for a term of Indentured Servitude, therefore you do not have a right to a lawyer, and the U.S. Military can do whatever they want to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it”. I kept fighting until the end, and proved my innocence, but nonetheless, I’m not Patriotic, due to my experience’s!
    2) As a Civilian, after the Military, I was slapped with Falsified Charge’s, Arrested @ gunpoint, and Put in Jail for 1 week. I had to make it to 6 Court Date’s over a 3 month period, after being released from Jail, due to lack of Evidence against me. It took me many month’s to get the Charge’s against me dropped, and get my Confiscated Weaponry back. It took 6 month’s to recover in my Job.
    3) 2 time’s as a Civilian, I was Falsely Accused, Property Confiscated, and Incarcerated. Both in the Military, and as a Civilian, I fought the Corrupt System, and proved my innocence, and got the Charge’s dropped.

    You have to fight the whole damn way, because the System is Corrupt, and unforgiving! I literally was at GUNPOINT, and had my life threatened by the system, both Federal, and State!
    The Government, and Police, actively Manipulate, Intimidate, and Plant Evidence. REMEMBER THOUGH, THAT THEY MUST PROVE BEYOND A SHADOW OF A DOUBT, THAT A CRIME WAS COMMITED! Never admit to anything, and do not accept any plea bargain’s. The Government, and Police use Scare Tactic’s, to force your cooperation! Do not give in to them!

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    We as a society are weak, we have been socially engineered to bow to authority, not cause trouble, avoid controversy, speak politically correctly etc. etc etc. So when the heat is on, people buckle and ‘opt out’.

    Try this with Thog the caveman!
    ‘We know you hit Bok with rock, now him dead, you in trouble!”
    Thog ‘ Nope, you eat too many banana’s they come out your ears’
    ‘We have your favorite rock, show it kill Bok!
    Thog ” I have favorite rock right here. Maybe you need it someplace ‘special’?
    Uh, okay maybe we look more.

  • http://www.hahn.com JhayhoHaHn1

    Illusion cunfusion let me add a lil serum to just for you to hit you bluetooth cross you ever worst da the kinds done the i plot on how the hell hitler almost ruled an entire world in an instant.

    let out a hand to the trouble youth specially when confused couse fight if you have too aslong as no1 bucks lead on this one….


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