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Why Do Innocent People Confess?

… If you have never been tortured, or locked up and verbally threatened, you may find it hard to believe that anyone would confess to something he had not done. Intuition holds that the innocent do not make false confessions. What on earth could be the motive? To stop the abuse? To curry favor with the interrogator? To follow some fragile thread of imaginary hope that cooperation will bring freedom?

Yes, all of the above. Psychological studies of confessions that have proved false show an overrepresentation of children, the mentally ill and mentally retarded, and suspects who are drunk or high. They are susceptible to suggestion, eager to please authority figures, disconnected from reality or unable to defer gratification. Children often think, as Felix did, that they will be jailed if they keep up their denials and will get to go home if they go along with interrogators. Mature adults of normal intelligence have also confessed falsely after being manipulated.

False confessions have figured in 24 percent of the approximately 289 convictions reversed by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. Considering that DNA is available in just a fraction of all crimes, a much larger universe of erroneous convictions — and false confessions — surely exists.

Officers are not beyond trickery:

Officers are taught to use all the tricks and lies that courts permit within the scope of the Fifth Amendment’s shield against self-incrimination. John E. Reid & Associates, which has trained thousands of interrogators, suggests that a suspect be induced to waive his constitutional rights to silence and counsel by giving him the famous Miranda warning “casually” and not immediately after arrest, when he is “defensive and guarded” and “more likely to invoke his rights.” When a skilled questioner splices it nonchalantly into conversation, the warning’s empowering message of choice can be lost on a suspect. Many false confessors have been routinely Mirandized in this perfunctory manner.

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Related: Confirmation Bias in Criminal Investigations