[a] first-of-its-kind study shows that it could — easily. With a little misinformation, encouragement and three hours, researchers were able to convince 70 percent of the study's participants that they'd committed a crime.What did the researchers do to their subjects to get them to confess? Lock them in a closet for three days? Deprive them of sleep and feed them drugs? Nope. They just talked to them for three 45 minute sessions.
And the college-aged students who participated in the study didn't merely confess — they recalled full-blown, detailed experiences, says lead researcher Julia Shaw, a lecturer in forensic psychology from the University of Bedfordshire. The results were "definitely unexpected," says Shaw, who predicted only a 30 percent rate.
Shaw and Stephen Porter, a forensic psychologist at the University of British Columbia, first got a few facts about the faux criminal's teen years — the name of her best friend, hometown, etc. — from parents or a guardian. (An ethical committee said it was OK.) Then, during three 45-minute interviews, Shaw extracted information from the students about one true experience (which they remembered) and one fabricated experience (of which she convinced them).Fascinating stuff. Here's the abstract of the paper, pubished in Psychological Science.
After a few hours of feeding the students tidbits of the verified info, she added them up to equal her fabricated crime — and a majority of students were persuaded: They were criminals.
One student, when told she had assaulted a classmate in her teens, "elaborately" filled in all the blanks: what weapon she used (a rock), what the argument was over (a boy), what she was having for dinner when the police came looking for her — even the color of the officers' hair.
Memory researchers long have speculated that certain tactics may lead people to recall crimes that never occurred, and thus could potentially lead to false confessions. This is the first study to provide evidence suggesting that full episodic false memories of committing crime can be generated in a controlled experimental setting. With suggestive memory-retrieval techniques, participants were induced to generate criminal and noncriminal emotional false memories, and we compared these false memories with true memories of emotional events. After three interviews, 70% of participants were classified as having false memories of committing a crime (theft, assault, or assault with a weapon) that led to police contact in early adolescence and volunteered a detailed false account. These reported false memories of crime were similar to false memories of noncriminal events and to true memory accounts, having the same kinds of complex descriptive and multisensory components. It appears that in the context of a highly suggestive interview, people can quite readily generate rich false memories of committing crime.There is a rich literature on false memories, with the work of Elizabeth Loftus paving the way. There is also long experience with false confessors---people who confess to notorious crimes, and as well, a proven track record of the unreliability of criminal confessions. This experiment ties these threads together.