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Research Review: The lie, the Bluff and False Confessions

January 2011 (click here for printable version)

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One of the most controversial aspects of criminal interrogation involves the use of trickery and deceit. While Federal and State Supreme Courts routinely uphold confessions that were obtained from interrogations during which the suspect was falsely told that there was incriminating evidence, academicians and psychologists have argued that lying to a suspect about having incriminating evidence is unethical, erodes the integrity of the criminal justice system and may induce an innocent suspect to confess.

Considering the necessity of dealing with criminal suspects on a somewhat lower moral plane than the average public, Supreme Court justices have rejected the ethical arguments. While there have been some restrictions placed on the use of trickery and deceit during an interrogation, e.g., manufacturing evidence against a suspect, the prevailing logic has been that merely lying to a suspect about having incriminating evidence would not be apt to cause an innocent person to confess. As a recent appeals court ruled, "such misrepresentations (lying about having evidence), of course may cause a suspect to confess, but causation alone does not constitute coercion..."1

A recent study challenges this basic premise.2 The authors offer the paradoxical hypothesis that lying to a suspect about having incriminating evidence actually encourages innocent people to confess. The study used a cheating paradigm in which participants (college students) were instructed not to help another person (a confederate within the study) with a particular task. In half of the cases, the other person asked the participant for help, which most provided. All participants were then accused of helping the confederate with the task and advised that cheating would be a violation of the University's honor code. Under this condition, none of the innocent participants confessed and 87% of the guilty participants confessed.

A second group of half innocent and half guilty suspects were not only accused of cheating but also told that there was a hidden video camera in the room which would eventually reveal their guilt or innocence. Under this circumstance 93% of the guilty suspects confessed and 50% of the innocent suspects confessed.

To anyone who has conducted actual interrogations, this finding makes absolutely no sense. The explanation can be found within the procedures used during the mock interrogation. As it turned out, these innocent participants didn't confess to helping the other person at all. Rather, they signed a prepared statement to that effect. Further, and of most importance, they were reassured that if the hidden camera exonerated them they would not get into any trouble by signing the statement. According to the study, the participants were then told, "stop wasting my time and sign this," which almost all of the guilty suspects did as well as half of the innocent suspects.

If this interrogation tactic were used during an actual criminal interrogation, the confession would be suppressed in a heartbeat. Encouraging suspects to sign a prepared confession by offering them a promise that if future evidence exonerates the suspect the confession will not be used against them, clearly shocks the conscience of the court and community.3 In other words, the innocent participants in this study were manipulated into believing that signing the confession would not result in any negative consequences. The tactic falls just short of having the suspect sign a blank document, which the investigator later fills in.

In real-life interrogations suspects are fully aware that their confession is an admission of guilt. In real-life interrogations if false statements are made to a suspect with respect to evidence, it is that the evidence clearly implicates the suspect in the crime, e.g., "We've got a witness who saw you leave her apartment!" or "We've got your fingerprints from the murder weapon!" Under this circumstance, an innocent suspect would immediately recognize that the evidence could not exist (or was manufactured) and the suspect would be more motivated to maintain their innocence. Certainly the innocent suspect would not be encouraged to falsely confess, as suggested by this research.

In conclusion, this study is a prime example illustrating the dangers of generalizing laboratory research findings to real-life situations. In an effort to prove their hypothesis, Perillo and Kassin have ignored legal guidelines regulating interrogation practices. They created an interrogation scenario that is not advocated by any authority in the field of interrogation that we are aware of, and certainly not by John E. Reid and Associates. Hopefully courts will recognize that any laboratory hypothesis can be proven if one manipulates research variables in a manner favorable to the hypothesis.

For further information of the problems with generalizing laboratory research to real-life situations, click here.

1 State v. Perez, WI, 2010

2 Perillo, J. and Kassin, S, "Inside Interrogation: The Lie, The Bluff and False Confessions" Law and Human Behavior, Aug. 2010

3 Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731,89 S. Ct. 1420 (1969)


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