Why people confess to crimes they didn’t commit

When under duress innocent suspects can make a false confession. Why is this? Legal psychologist Linda Geven will give a talk about this at the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition’s Brain & Law event. At this symposium (in Dutch) on 16 September you can attend talks on fascinating brain research and the judiciary, and speak to researchers.

What is your talk about?

‘What happens to a suspect’s brain in the interrogation room; what factors cause someone to make a false confession. I’ll also look at the brains of other important players in a criminal case, such as the judge, police officers and witnesses. Research has shown that if a suspect makes a false confession eyewitnesses will change their statements. They suddenly think it was that suspect after all, and witnesses who support an alibi sometimes withdraw. Forensic experts and the judge can also unconsciously change their opinion if the suspect himself says he did it.’

‘A suspect thinks: I’ll confess now to get out of here and will prove later that it wasn’t me.’

Why do people make a false confession?

‘In miscarriages of justice, we see a lot of pressure put on the suspect and some people succumb to this. The suspect doesn’t have to have an intellectual disability or psychological disorder. It could be that they are in custody, haven’t slept for three days and can’t cope with harsh interrogation techniques, so confess just to get out of the situation. They think: I’ll confess now to get out of here and will prove later that it wasn’t me. But that later doesn’t always come, also because others, such as witnesses, react to this false confession. I speak to the wrongfully convicted sometimes years after their release. The case has dominated their lives and they still suffer from the stigma of where there’s smoke there’s fire.’

How often does it happen?

‘It’s difficult to come up with an estimate. The cases we know of are the tip of the iceberg. In the Netherlands there have been about seven officially recognised miscarriages of justice, most of which involved a false confession. These cases mainly occurred between 1980 and 2005. Interrogation techniques have changed since then, but there are still risk factors. Police officers should take more account of the psychological effects of interrogations, for example, and legal psychologists should be brought in more often to investigate confessions.’

How do you do your research?  

‘I speak to the wrongfully convicted and, apart from that, also do research in the lab with test subjects who have to do a task. To put it simply: I accuse them of cheating when they haven’t been and look at who does and who doesn’t make a false confession. I also study Dutch and international cases. A lot of information comes from the US because they have a big database of miscarriages of justice there. This came about when DNA analysis emerged as an investigative method. Thanks to a LUF grant, I am now developing an international databank of miscarriages of justice in Europe, so of review requests that have led to acquittal. The database will be ready in 2023. The more we know about miscarriages of justice, the better we can prevent them.’

Text: Linda van Putten

Photo: Lex van Lieshout/ANP

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