It is hard for most people to wrap their mind around why anyone would ever confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. It seems impossible to the average person to imagine themselves ever doing such a thing. Yet, a quarter of those exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of a crime gave some sort of confession. This shocking statistic begs the obvious question: why would someone ever confess when they are innocent? In this series of posts on false confessions, we will look at the circumstances that lead to a false confession and the powerful consequences they can have.
While anyone can find themselves in this situation, there are a number of factors that make individuals more likely to give a false confession. People vary in their ability to withstand the psychological pressures of interrogation. One of these factors is age. Social scientists have found that juveniles are overrepresented when examining the demographics of exonerees that once gave confessions. Juveniles are two to three times more likely to give false confessions than adults. They are often more susceptible to the pressures of coercion involved in police interrogation tactics. It is also likely that juveniles do not often fully understand the serious long-term consequences of giving that false confession. It may not to be clear to them that they will not be returning home to their families or going back to school the following day after giving these confessions.
The harsh psychological tactics that police officers use to yield confessions, isolation, the promises of help and leniency in return for a confession, and the relentless insistence that the accused is lying to them, are simply intended for adult criminals. It is a fact that juveniles’ minds are not fully developed yet. Particularly, the prefrontal cortex, notably responsible for problem-solving and decision making, is not fully developed until their early twenties. Meaning that, juveniles are often impulsive, lacking in reason and decision-making abilities, and most importantly they are motivated by short-term rewards. This makes it quite obvious why juveniles will confess to a crime they did not commit so that they can just go home like the detective makes them believe that they will, rather than weighing the long-term consequences of this short-term release from the pressure and stress of interrogation.
Another population that finds themselves just as vulnerable as juveniles are those with intellectual disabilities. For obvious reasons, people with mental handicaps often lack proper judgement, the ability to reason and make decisions, and the ability to understand the powerful implications of a false confession. They are susceptible to the pressures of interrogations in a similar way to juveniles as they can lack intellectual capabilities in similar areas. Additionally, however, social scientists have concluded that those with intellectual disabilities also have a high need for approval, and therefore often seek to give people what they want. This need is heightened in the presence of an authority figure. Because of their desire to please they are much more likely to submit to the demands of others and give the authority figure what they want.
Finally, they simply lack the same ability to cope with high levels of stress that others possess. Those with intellectual disabilities tend to find even regular levels of stress to be overwhelming and a police interrogation is extremely stressful for anyone. They tend to want to avoid conflict and are much more likely to just comply with the requests of the interrogators, even if that means giving a false confession, so that they can end the situation sooner.
One last population that is highly susceptible to the pressures of police interrogations is the mentally ill. The baseline for a coerced confession in people who are mentally ill is much lower than for other people. They may lack social skills such as assertiveness, the ability of executive functioning, have high anxiety, and lack the ability to separate reality from fantasy. What might not even seem like coercion to others, can serve to coerce a confession from someone who is mentally ill because they tend to be much more susceptible to the slightest amount of pressure. Thus, like the other populations that we discussed, the mentally ill are much more vulnerable to making false confessions and not understanding the consequences of making these confessions.
While these special populations do not necessarily make up the majority of false confessions, it is important to understand how they may be unfairly affected by interrogation tactics used by police. It is often the detectives only goal to yield some sort of confession. However, a false confession is the opposite of justice, it traps the innocent in the justice system and leaves the true guilty party on the streets. It is vital for police to have an understanding of who they are questioning and what kind of deficits the suspect may have that would bar them from responding in a regular way under the pressure of an interrogation.