False Confessions

Presented by Leandra Frye

How the study of false confessions has progressed over the last 25 years:


During the 1980s false confessions were seen as an issue and researchers attempted to define the different types of false confessions and why people admit to crimes they did not commit.

1985: Types of false confessions (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985).

  • Voluntary- This type of confession is made without any pressure from the outside. The person willingly and knowingly confesses to a crime they actually committed.
  • Coerced- This type of confession is made only to escape an interrogation that the person may see as aversive, avoid harm, or to get a benefit that was promised
  • Coerced-internalized- People who make the confession actually come to believe they have committed the crime.


Research on false confessions in the 90s focused its attention on whether or not a person could actually convince themselves they committed a crime that, in fact, they did not commit. False confessions were studied using subjects in experiment settings that mirrored a naturalistic setting. For example, Kassin and Kiechel (1996) studied false confessions by setting up a scenario with participants who were to complete a typing exercise and were told to avoid pushing a key on the computer that would end the task. While the participants were completing the task, the computer went blank. They were accused by the experimenter of pushing the button they were told not to push. The experiment attempted to determine whether people could internalize the confession and come to believe they pushed the button when in fact they did not.

1996: Can people actually be convinced they committed a crime?

  • Kassin and Kiechel (1996) tested the conditions for which a false confession could occur. Although the “crime” was minor, some of the participants had actually come to believe they had committed the mistake they were accused of. Why is this? False evidence, for example, in the form of false witness identifications, can make people believe they have committed the crime accused of. This is especially true if the situation has some element of ambiguity. Other tactics used that may increase the chances of a false confession are minimizing the crime (giving the person a false sense that there will be leniency) or scare tactics (Kassin & Kiechel 1996).
  • Why is this important? – Juries may convict in a trial where there is a confession because they may not be able to believe that someone would confess for something they did not do.


During this time, there is an increased concern for the way that suspects are interrogated and concern about the psychological stress that can push a person to admit to committing a crime they did not (Kassin, Appleby, & Perillo, 2010).

2010: The American interrogation technique

  • What can elicit a confession?- Overly persuasive interrogation tactics used by police can increase the chances of a false confession (Kassin, Appleby, & Perillo, 2010).
  • There is a push for changing interrogation techniques used in the U.S. that sometimes lead to people admitting to crimes they did not commit.
  • How can we decrease the chances of a false confession?- Kassin, Appleby, and Perillo (2010) propose adopting interrogation techniques found in other coutries like Britain. Also, they note that videotaping an entire interrogation could potentially better aid judges and juries in decision making when there is a confession.

Consequences of interrogation techniques with children:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/WkLHXKHb1Vc" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

  • In 2008 National Geographic featured a documentary called “The Science of Interrogation”. Included in the documentary was an interrogation of a young boy by police after his sister was murdered the night before.
  • The boy in the clip does not specifically remember killing his sister, but says that he has a feeling he did it. Going along with this, the police get him to admit that he murdered his sister the night before.
  • The issue with this confession that the boy killed his sister is that he, in fact, was not the one who murdered her. As can be seen in the video, the boy is under extreme stress from the interrogation.

Kassin, S.M., Appleby, S.C., & Perillo, J.T. (2010). Interviewing suspects: practice, science, and future directions. Legal and Criminological Psychology. 15, 39-55.

Kassin, S.M., Kiechel, K.L. (1996). The social psychology of false confessions: compliance, internalization, and confabulation. Psychological Science. 7, 125-128.

NationalGeographic (poster). Interrogation or Child Abuse . Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkLHXKHb1Vc

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