The Truth About the Research Social Psychologists Use as the Basis for Testimony Regarding False and/or Coerced Confessions

Written By: Joseph P. Buckley
Mar 06, 2023

The Truth About the Research Social Psychologists Use as the Basis for Testimony regarding False and/or Coerced Confessions

Social Psychologists, Defense Attorneys, Academicians, and Law Enforcement interrogation critics oftentimes refer to research that they claim supports their statements. However, they rarely discuss the details of that research. In this Investigator’s Tip, we will discuss three of the most common claims made by this group about law enforcement interrogation techniques and the research that these claims are based on.

First, here is some background on the issue of false confessions.

There exists no controlled study investigating the validity or reliability of field interrogation techniques and their impact on the accuracy of confession statements. The only meaningful approach to conducting such a study would be to subject actual persons, who had essentially the same personalities and backgrounds, to identical interrogation techniques. If half of the sample was known, without a doubt, to be innocent of the crime, and the other half was known to be guilty, statistical analysis could be performed to establish the effectiveness of the interrogation techniques on innocent and guilty suspects who confessed. Not only is this an immensely impractical methodology, but it would clearly violate ethical research standards established by the American Psychological Association.

Consequently, statistics on interrogation practices must be collected indirectly. Existing research in the area of criminal interrogation can be divided into the following three categories:

  • anecdotal reports: a collection of data selected because it supports a hypothesis….. anecdotal reports are chosen, precisely because they appear to support an underlying hypothesis that may or may not have any statistical significance
  • surveys: data collected on actual interrogations or confessions either through observation, review of documents, or self-reporting
  • laboratory studies: a simulated situation is created to study the incidence or frequency of a particular phenomenon (e.g., false memories or suggestibility)

If survey data are collected in a random and representative manner, it offers the greatest possible insight on factors that are important to consider within real-life confessions.

One such study is reported by Richard Leo, who surveyed 182 interrogations conducted by three metropolitan police departments. Among the cases analyzed, not a single false confession was reported within the random sample.

[Leo, R. (1996). Inside the Interrogation Room. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 86, 266–303.]

Another example of survey data involved 112 investigators from the states of Alaska and Minnesota who received training in the Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation. These investigators reported obtaining a total of 3,162 confessions during the previous 2 years. Of these confessions in which the Reid Technique was presumably used in whole or part, only 18 (0.56%) were suppressed at trial(the majority of which involved Miranda violations).

[Jayne, B. (2004). Empirical Experiences of Required Electronic Recording of Interviews and Interrogations on Investigators’ Practices and Case Outcomes.” Law Enforcement Executive Forum 4 (1).]

When the focus of research is on actual police interrogation practices, as opposed to anecdotal accounts of possibly false confessions or laboratory recreations of “police interrogations,” survey results indicate that the vast majority of confessions obtained through interrogation are non-coercive and held to be admissible as evidence. This is not to suggest that the issue of possible false confessions be ignored, but rather that it be kept in perspective.

Laboratory studies will be discussed later in this presentation.

It should be noted that in the 1969 case Frazier v. Cupp, the United States Supreme Court concluded that while misrepresentations of evidence were relevant, they did not make an otherwise voluntary confession inadmissible. The Court judged the materiality of the misrepresentation by viewing the "totality of circumstances.” In this case, the police had falsely told Frazier that his accomplice had confessed. Essentially the Court was saying that if the police did not engage in any coercive behaviors (threats of harm, physical abuse, promises of leniency, denial of rights, etc.), misrepresenting evidence in and of itself is not likely to cause an innocent person the confess.

Social Psychologists, Defense Attorneys, Academicians, and Law Enforcement interrogation critics Claim #1:

Misrepresenting evidence to a subject during an interrogation will cause innocent people to confess

Social psychologists often claim that police lie to suspects about evidence, such as telling the suspect that there was a witness who saw them at the scene of the crime, that their DNA was found on the victim, or that their fingerprints were found on the murder weapon, etc.

Their premise is that innocent people will confess when told about this (non-existing) evidence. They support this claim by referencing anecdotal cases in which an innocent person did confess after they were advised of false evidence. However, what they fail to mention is that in each of the cases that they reference, the investigators engaged in threats, promises of leniency, denial of rights, excessively long interrogations, or other coercive behaviors.

In a recent article entitled, "Law Enforcement Experts on Why Police Shouldn't be Allowed to Lie to Suspects" Professor Saul Kassin describes a series of cases in which he suggests that innocent people confessed to committing serious crimes because the police lied to them about incriminating evidence. However, he conveniently fails to mention that in every one of the cases that he referenced, the investigators engaged in threats, promises of leniency, denial of rights, excessively long interrogations, or other coercive behaviors.

It was not the misrepresentation of evidence that caused the confession, but the investigator’s use of coercive and abusive tactics.

In addition to anecdotal cases, social psychologists will reference research that they suggest demonstrates that lying to a suspect about false evidence will cause innocent people to confess .

One of the studies that they use is referred to as the ALT-key study. In the Alt-key Study, students were required to perform a data entry project and warned not to hit the computer's Alt-key because it would cause the computer to crash. However, unbeknownst to the students as they were entering data, the researchers forced the system to crash, and then falsely accused the students of hitting the Alt-key. They also confronted them with a “witness” who reported seeing them do so. Under these circumstances, a number of the students signed written confessions despite their innocence. [S.M. Kassin and K.L Kiechel, ‘The Social Psychology of False Confessions: Compliance, Internalization, and Confabulation’, 7 Psychological Science 125 (1996)]

In a second study, that social psychologists oftentimes reference to support there claim that misrepresenting evidence, in and of itself, will cause innocent people to confess, is one in which students were given a set of assignments and told that in some assignments collaboration with classmates was acceptable, while in others it was prohibited. The researchers then accused innocent students of improperly collaborating on certain assignments, informed them that they had violated university rules prohibiting cheating, and, for some, minimized the extent of their wrongdoing and encouraged them to take responsibility for their actions. Half of the students were told that there was a hidden video camera in the room which would eventually reveal their guilt or innocence. (This was the misrepresentation of evidence – there was no camera.)

Under this circumstance, 93% of the guilty suspects confessed and 50% of the innocent suspects confessed. However, as it turned out, these innocent participants did not confess to helping the other person at all. Rather, they signed a prepared statement stating that they helped the other person, but they were reassured that if the hidden camera exonerated them, m which the innocent suspects expected to happen, they would not get into any trouble by signing the statement. The "innocent” participants in this study were manipulated into believing that signing the confession would not result in any negative consequences.

If this technique was used in an actual criminal case, encouraging suspects to sign a confession by offering them a promise that if future evidence exonerates them the confession will not be used against them, it would clearly shock the conscience of the court and community and certainly be suppressed.

[J.T. Perillo and S.M. Kassin, ‘Inside Interrogation: The Lie, the Bluff, and False Confessions’, 35 Law and Human Behavior 327 (2011)]

In US v. Jacques, when discussing these studies, the court stated that “Obviously, these “interrogations” were not conducted by law enforcement, were not part of a criminal
investigation, did not involve actual suspects, and did not present the students with a serious penalty. As a result, Professor Hirsch [the false confession expert in this case] readily admitted that these studies have “limited value,” which, in the context of this case, is an understatement.”

One of the authors of the above referenced studies, Kassin, stated, “One needs to be cautious in generalizing from laboratory experiments.”

Social Psychologists, Defense Attorneys, Academicians, and Law Enforcement interrogation critics Claim #2:

Investigators oftentimes misclassify subjects as to their truthfulness or deception, so as a result, they often interrogate innocent individuals.

The basis for this claim is research conducted by social psychologists that suggests that an investigator’s ability to determine a subject’s credibility based on their verbal and nonverbal behaviors in terms of accuracy is no better than chance. However, when you look behind the curtain you see that this “research” has very little applicability to real-life investigations.

Most of the detection of deception research studies that are referenced by social psychologists involve studies that were conducted in the laboratory using students to commit mock crimes. For example, having students “steal” money from an office drawer, and then assigning half of them to be “innocent” and half of them to be “guilty” when they were interviewed about their possible involvement by an “investigator” who was supposed to determine their status.

Other studies involved having convicted prisoners on video describing the crime that they committed, and then in a second video describing a crime they did not commit but are describing it as though they did commit it. The viewer is then asked to determine which story is true and which is not.

There are a number of reasons that laboratory studies are generally not applicable to real-life situations:

  • The subjects (students/prisoners) had low levels of motivation to be believed or to avoid detection
  • The interviews of the subjects were not conducted by investigators trained in interviewing criminal suspects
  • The studies did not employ the type of structured interview process that is commonly utilized by investigators in the field
  • In most studies, there was no attempt to establish a behavioral baseline for each subject so as to identify changes from their normal behavioral pattern
  • The research was based on the faulty premise that there are specific behavior symptoms that are unique to truth or deception
  • Finally, there was little consideration given to evaluating behaviors in context. For example, identifying the consistency of a suspect’s statements across time and with known evidence

It should be noted that there are no behaviors unique to truth or deception. All behavior has to be viewed in context, and a number of variables must be considered, such as age, culture, mental capacity, emotional and psychological stability, and the subject's physical condition (drugs, alcohol, medical issues).

In most research studies the interview is evaluated in a vacuum. In the real world the investigative interview of a subject takes place in the context of an investigation. For example, by the time the investigators interview a suspect they may already have developed information about the subject’s relationship with the victim, their whereabouts at the time of the crime, their financial situation, and other relevant background material. Furthermore, they may already have developed evidence that implicates the suspect – eyewitnesses, DNA, trace evidence, etc.

In the research studies the “suspects” are interviewed in a vacuum with the investigator conducting the interview without any background information as to how the suspect fits into the investigation. The investigator is asked to make a decision as to the subject’s truthfulness based solely on the “behavior” he/she exhibited during the interview. In the real world, the investigator makes a judgment about the suspect’s possible involvement in the commission of the crime under investigation based on the suspect’s behavior and the case evidence and facts.

When researchers attempt to design studies that more closely approximate the setting of real-life field interviews, they show a marked increase in the ability of investigators to detect deception. Consider the following:

A study published in Human Communication Research by researchers at Korea University, Michigan State University, and Texas State University – San Marcos found that using active questioning of individuals as utilized in the field in real-life cases yielded near-perfect results, 97.8%, in detecting deception. [Timothy Levine, David Clare, J. Pete Blair, Steve McCornack, Kelly Morrison and Hee Sun Park, “Expertise in Deception Detection Involves Actively Prompting Diagnostic Information Rather Than Passive Behavioral Observation” Human Communication Research (40) 2014]

In the Reid Technique we teach that there are four rules to be followed in the evaluation of a subject's behavior symptoms:

1. Establish the subject's normal behavioral pattern and then look for changes from that norm or baseline

2. Read all nonverbal behavior for timing and consistency

3. Read behavioral clusters - the overall behavioral pattern - not single, isolated observations

4. Always evaluate behavior symptoms in conjunction with the case evidence and facts

If these rules are followed investigators can be very accurate in assessing a subject's credibility.

Social Psychologists, Defense Attorneys, Academicians, and Law Enforcement interrogation critics Claim #3:

Offering the suspect a moral or psychological justification for committing the crime is the same as offering them a promise of leniency.

Social psychologists describe the interrogation process as one in which the interrogator tries to minimize or downplay the seriousness or consequences of the alleged act to make it easier for the suspect to confess. “By minimizing the consequences or the outcome or the punishment, minimization communicates a suggestion or promise of either leniency or reduced punishment in exchange for cooperation.”

An essential part of the Reid Technique is to suggest face-saving excuses for the subject's crime which include projecting blame away from the subject onto such elements as financial pressure, the victim's behavior, an accomplice, emotions, or alcohol.

There are two types of acceptable minimization that can occur during an interrogation:

  • minimizing the moral seriousness of the behavior
  • minimizing the psychological consequences of the behavior

We never teach to minimize the legal consequences of the subject’s behavior

Social psychologists claim that offering the suspect the excuse that he committed the crime due to the suggestion of an accomplice, for example, is the same as telling him that if he confesses that he committed the crime because his accomplice talked him into doing it, he will face less punishment.

The research that they typically use to support this claim is a study conducted by Kassin and McNall in which the effects of different interrogation techniques on levels of perceived guilt or responsibility were investigated. College students read five different interrogation transcripts of a murder suspect:

In the first, the investigator made an explicit promise of leniency;

In the second, the suspect was threatened with a harsh sentence;

In the third, the victim was blamed;

In the fourth, the suspect was falsely told that his fingerprints were found on the murder weapon; and

The fifth transcript contained none of these variables.

After reading each transcript the students rendered opinions as to how long they thought the suspect would be sentenced.

The researchers found it significant that the students believed the sentence would be less severe in the condition in which the victim was blamed for the homicide.

The authors of this study argue that the perceived leniency attributed to such a theme could cause false confessions through “pragmatic implication” – even though the investigator did not promise leniency, there is an implicit implication that the subject would face less punishment if his accomplice talked him into committing the crime.

However, the authors do point out that, “because our findings are based on inferences drawn by college students, relatively uninvolved but highly educated observers, it remains to be seen whether similar inferences are drawn by real crime suspects.”

[Saul Kassin and Karlyn McNall “Police Interrogations and Confession: Communicating Promises and Threats by Pragmatic Implication,” Law and Human Behavior (1991)]

The courts reject this principle of pragmatic implication:

“The most important decision in all cases is to look for a quid pro quo offer by interrogators, regardless of whether it comes in the form of a threat or a promise.” R. v. Oickle, [2000] 2 S.C.R. 3, 2000 SCC 38

In summary, the studies that many social psychologists use to “support” their claims about law enforcement interrogation techniques are based on research that is seriously flawed, is generally not applicable to real-life situations, and as the authors have stated, “One needs to be cautious in generalizing from laboratory experiments.”

Finally, in considering the issue of false confessions and the ability of “experts” to identify false confessions, in United States v. Begay (2020) the court found “there is no scientifically reliable means of determining whether a given confession is false.” The court stated that “crucially, there does not appear to be a reliable estimate of how many confessions are false confessions, regardless of the interrogation tactic employed.” Also, “false confession theory cannot reliably determine whether a given confession is false.” Additionally, the court found that a further limitation on false confession science “is that false confession theory does not appear to be based on significant empirical data, but instead appears to be based primarily on anecdotal evidence, small-sample-size studies, or extrapolations from inapposite situations.” 497 F.Supp.3d 1025, 1068-69 (D. N. Mex 2020)

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