This is definitely my favourite area of psychology so, last year, when I saw that it was an option module for third year I knew straight away that I would be choosing it. So far we’ve had five lectures of this module and it is just as interesting as I knew it would be. My only complaint is that we only have one lecture a week. In fairness, these lectures are two hours long but it’s just not enough!
A couple of lectures ago we studied false confessions, their prevalence in real life criminal cases, and what makes people confess to a crime they didn’t commit. On the surface it seems very strange that a person would confess to a crime they didn’t do when it involves harsh consequences, like a long prison sentence for example. However, there are actually a number of reasons why people do it, and this lecture definitely opened my eyes to this and to the fact that it happens a lot more than I (and, presumably, the majority of people) initially thought.
There have been lots of lab studies carried out into the area of false confessions which have found the number of participants who confessed to something they didn’t do in the study to be very high (as high as 100% in some cases). For example, in one study participants were given a computer task but were warned that if they pressed the ‘Alt’ key at any time the computer would crash. After a little while the computer crashed and the majority of participants came to internalise the belief that they had pressed the key, even though they did not. The study also found that false confessions were more likely when participants had been typing at a fast pace, indicating uncertainty as a possible factor for confessing. All of the participants confessed when a witness was present indicating that the presence of another person has a huge impact. These studies were carried out in a lab so may not accurately represent real-life criminal cases (the consequences in lab studies are not as severe as they are in ‘real-life’ so people feel more comfortable confessing to something they didn’t do). However, they do have serious implications for criminal cases. Should a person be sent to prison just because they confessed to the crime?
So, why do people give false confessions? Well, we learnt in this lecture that the three most common reasons are: for fame/notoriety, because of an incentive (such as hoping to get a shorter prison sentence if they confess), and to get out of a stressful situation like a police interrogation. What I liked about this lecture the most is that there were a lot of real case studies linked in to the points being made so we could actually see what we were being told unfolding in real life. I wouldn’t have believed that so many people confess to serious crimes just to become well known if we hadn’t have been shown case studies. We learnt about the case of the kidnapping of baby Lindbergh, the baby of the first man to fly non-stop from New York to Paris. Over 200 people confessed to kidnapping him because they wanted the notoriety that came with a committing a crime involving a high profile family. You hear about these things all the time on TV but you never imagine it to be on this scale; maybe a couple of people that have something wrong with them do it but not over 200, seemingly average, people. It was shocking to learn that it’s actually way more common than I thought. People also confess as they see it as the only way to get out of stressful police interviews. We were given some shocking figures in this lecture; police interrogations are only supposed to last for around 30 minutes at a time but they can last for up to 24. The average interrogation is around 16 hours (see what I mean about this lecture being eye-opening?). The problem here is that once they confess, even if they then withdraw their statement, the confession has already been made and it will be used against them.
It is believed that around 12% of prison inmates have made false confessions, however, we can never truly know whether this is an accurate number or not. People, especially prison inmates, have a tendency to bend the truth, and the police don’t keep records of false confessions (why would they? They don’t think they need them), so there’s no evidence to back this figure up.
I am thoroughly enjoying these legal lectures and I feel like I’m leaving them with a new perspective of the world. Last week we learnt about risk assessing offenders and the different kinds of interventions and I’m looking forward to what Thursday’s lecture will bring. I just wish it was an option for the second semester too but sadly it wasn’t.