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Psychology of False Confessions: Causes, Consequences & Implications

Instructor: Deborah Teasley

Deborah has 4 years of teaching experience and a master's degree in program development & management.

What would you do if you were wrongfully accused of a crime? In this lesson, we will explore why some people give false confessions and the consequences it has on their lives.

What Is a False Confession?

Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five, made verbal admissions to the crime but never signed a confession. He was still convicted along with his friends.
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In April of 1989, a young woman was raped and viciously beaten while jogging through Central Park. The attack was so brutal that she fell into a coma. Upon waking up, she suffered from severe memory loss and couldn't remember anything about the attack. It was discovered that five boys from Harlem were also in the park that same night. All were brought in for interrogation. Four out of the five kids eventually made a videotaped confession to the crime. They were then tried, found guilty, and served sentences ranging from five to thirteen years.

Eventually, word started to trickle out that the boys had been intimidated by the police and coerced into a confession. These statements and the fact the DNA at the scene did not match any of the accused was downplayed at first. Then in 2002, after they had served their sentences and registered as sex offenders, the DNA was finally matched to a convicted serial rapist who admitted to committing the crime alone. The boys would eventually become known as the 'Central Park Five.' Today, they serve as an excellent example of the consequences of false confessions, which is when someone admits to being guilty of a crime that they did not commit.

Causes of False Confessions

Most of us probably find it difficult to understand why anyone would confess to a crime they didn't actually commit, especially when there are severe outcomes involved. So what causes a person to make a false confession? There are numerous internal and external elements that contribute to a false confession.

Children or those with mental disabilities can be easily manipulated, especially if they're afraid or want to please the authority figure. In some cases, they may just not fully understand the situation and give a false confession, not realizing the dire consequences. That being said, this happens to mentally capable adults as well and for a multitude of different reasons. For example, they could be intoxicated or believing that they can prove themselves innocent later.

They also could just be exhausted from the lengthy interrogations. Law enforcement officials sometimes go out of their way to make interrogations uncomfortable. It's also totally legal for them to be deceptive during questioning. Sometimes they lie to suspects about already having incriminating evidence against them. Or they try to convince them that their sentence will be less severe if they confess. A suspect who does not know this could be a lie or does not have the mental capabilities to understand the situation could easily be confused by these tactics.

Implications and Consequences

The existence of false confessions urges us to investigate the types of interrogation tactics used as well as the strength of a confession in court. Saul Kassin, a psychologist with an extensive background in social psychology and criminal justice, found three significant implications from his study of false confessions.

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