Watch step-by-step police manipulation techniques used to extract confessions for crimes committed or not. Would you resist the psychological warfare?
75% of homicide exonerations are explained by prosecutor or police manipulation
According to a report from the University of Michigan Law School, there were 149 people who were declared innocent or cleared of their convictions or guilty pleas in 2015. The innocents had served nearly 15 years on average for crimes they did not commit.
In 75 of the 149 exonerations, it turned out no crime had been committed, e.g. accidental death wrongly attributed to arson. In 65 cases, the defendants had pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. False confessions had been obtained in 27 other exonerations. In the latter 2 groups, the convicted were either juveniles, mentally ill, intellectually disabled, or under threat. Overall, 75% of the homicide exonerations were explained by official misconduct of prosecutors or cops.
Suspects often end up believing in the fabricated confession
One of the most troubling aspect is that suspects often end up believing in the fabricated confession, thanks to the strength of false memories. To prove how easy it is to convince a person that s/he has committed a crime, Julia Shaw (University of Bedfordshire, UK) and Stephen Porter (university of British Columbia, Can) conducted an experience published in Psychological Science in January 2015.
Participants went through a series of 1-hour interviews over a three-week period. During the first meeting, the interviewer read two stories about the participant: one true anecdote reported by parents and one story entirely fabricated. In the latter, the participant had committed a crime (robbery, assault, etc) or suffered a major mishap (injury, loss of money, etc).
The participants were asked to search their memories about the two stories and to provide additional details in the subsequent meetings. At the end of the experience, the results were quite impressive as more than two thirds of respondents actually believed to have lived the false story providing specific facts about the police officers they were supposed to have met.
A situation of stress facilitates the manipulation of false memories
Why is the inception of false memories so easy? For the 2 researchers, false memories, like real memories, are reactivated by assembling scattered fragments, which have sometimes no direct connection with the story to remember. The credible fragments help to make the story probable: “what it might have looked like can turn into what it would have looked like, which, in turn, can become what it looked like,” hence creating the false memories. A situation of stress facilitates the overall process by removing any possible reality checks.
It also appears that the art of persuasion of the interviewer is not neutral to obtain confessions. In 2003, two social psychologists, Eric Knowles at the University of Arkansas and Jay Linn at Widener University, formalized the approach-avoidance psychology of persuasion. To be persuasive, one must (i) increase the appeal of a goal (the “approach”), while (ii) decreasing the resistance surrounding that goal (the “avoidance”).
In a police interrogation, after preliminary assessments, the investigator’s tactic is to accuse the suspect of the crime, suggesting how and why the crime happened, usually based on presumptions rather than physical evidence that are hard to come by at crime scenes. The detective then initiates the do-the-right-thing approach, emphasizing confession as the only way to close the situation of stress and put the mind back to peace. This conflicts with the suspects’ (innocent or not) desire to avoid punishment, and creates indecision.
Seven principles to remove resistance barriers
For psychologist Robert Cialdini, seven principles are effective to remove avoidance barriers:
People tend to like and trust people who are like them, hence the most effective cops attempt to engage in casual conversations to create a non-threatening atmosphere and build a relationship based on shared interests and beliefs. The British Psychological Society (BPS) reported a study showing that confessions were “14 times more likely to occur early in an interrogation when a rapport-building approach was used. Confessions were four times more likely when interrogators struck a neutral and respectful stance. Rates of detainee disclosure were also higher when they were interrogated in comfortable settings”.
People respect and follow experts or leaders, hence the numerous headlines including “scientists say” or “research shows”. Business titles, impressive clothing, or even expensive, high-performing automobile are proven factors in lending credibility to individuals. For a police officer, authority is a given, and is easily abused. For example, cops routinely recommend suspects to waive their Miranda rights (to remain silent without the presence of an attorney) if they have nothing to hide. Suspects, whether innocent or not, often waive their rights as they want to be seen as cooperative and are afraid of antagonizing the police.
People tend to return favors, hence providing free information, samples, or a positive experience incentivize people to give you something in return. The good cop strategy is based on this principle. In stress situations, many people will open up to someone offering compassion, and even go along with suggestions to ensure that the presumably nice person will continue to protect them.
4. Commitment and Consistency
People want to be both consistent and true to their word. When people commit, orally or in writing, they are likely to honor that commitment and will consistently stick to it for all subsequent related choices. On the one hand, if a suspect agreed to engage in harmless discussions, it becomes harder for him/her to stop talking, or start lying, when the topic turns to the crime.
On the other hand, it is difficult to change people’s behaviors and attitudes, or in our case to convert a denying suspect into a confessing culprit. The best way to change attitude is to praise people for making good past decisions considering what they knew at the time and stress how the new behavior is consistent with the old ones.
Accordingly, most cops will concede that the suspect is a good person, who acted under adverse circumstances, but should now confess to be consistent with a good person behavior. This “minimizing” tactic downplays the seriousness of the offence, or blame it on other people or circumstances. While it allows the suspect to save face and dignity it also provides a false sense of security more likely to lead to a false confession as shown in an experiment reported by the BPS.
5. Social Validation
People will do things that they see other people doing as they want to belong. For instance, online testimonials are very effective to show customers that people similar to them have enjoyed a product or service. Falsely pretending that accomplices have already confessed their crimes, or charged the suspect, is a trick used in the US to convince suspects that it is ok to admit their own culpability.
As shown above in the Shaw/Porter experiment, these suggested wrong but credible information are extremely powerful to create false memories, especially in weaker minds in situation of stress. In comparison, police in England is not permitted to lie to suspects.
People share identity with groups, family being the most universal, but also based on ethnicity, geography, or other shared interests. The more an individual identifies with a group, the more powerful the unity effect is. Police interrogators often invoke the suspects’ identified values in order to coerce them to do the “right thing.”
The less there is of something, the more valuable it is, and the more difficult it is to pass on the opportunity. For example, special offers available for a “limited time only” reduce the resistance to buy. Similarly, reduced time jail in exchange for guilty plea offered for a limited time only is a classic trick in the tool kit of a prosecutor and can sound appealing even to innocent suspects.
How police manipulation is enabled inside the interrogation room
These principles are powerful because they bypass our rational minds, appealing to our subconscious instincts. In the Shaw/Porter experience, the interviewer encouraged the participants to search their memories while putting gentle pressure similar to the ones used in false-confession cases.
The experimenters included false clues like “your parents said…” (unity principle). They resorted to social pressure like “when they try hard, most people are able to recover lost memories” (social validation). Also, they provided signs of encouragement like nods or smiles, or signs of disappointment such as shaking head or frowns (liking). The meeting took place in a room with bookshelves suggesting the expertise of the interviewer (authority). Results were so strong that the experiment was stopped before running through all the participants.
People tend to confess more when they believe justice will prevail. But in court, confession trumps everything, even physical evidence, as it goes against common sense that an innocent person would confess to a criminal act. Still, false confessions are not uncommon and result in ruined life for innocents, real criminals free to commit more crimes, and wasted prosecution resources at the expense of society.
Towards new investigation techniques
Awareness is rising and new investigation techniques are being implemented. Canada and the UK already conducts non-accusatorial investigations, known as “Cognitive interview” and “PEACE method”, respectively, based on rapport building to get the suspect narrating as much as possible—with no suggestions made—and gather accurate information that can then be recouped.
Liars have a much harder time to invent and keep track of details. Nevertheless, some deceptive practices, such as influencing to waive the Miranda rights, some form of reciprocity or other minimizing tactics, will be hard to entirely remove for the protection of the innocents. These new techniques are also likely to results in fewer confessions, which shift the burden of asserting culpability back to the court system, with all its benefit and shortcomings.