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The Psychology of Confessions

Confessions in Context

What, exactly, is a confession? Is it a spontaneous utterance, or must it be written? Confessions can actually be either, but involve an individual admitting to having committed some type of act—often of a criminal nature, but not necessarily. Depending on the situation, confession may be required for absolution, mental health, or social acceptance. In many situations, however, when an individual confesses, doing so results in negative consequences, including a loss of freedom, money, or even one’s own life. For this reason, it can often be difficult to understand why someone would have an urge to confess.

Confession in Criminal Law

In relation to criminal law, confessions serve as the most powerful evidence possible. Furthermore, confessions can play a critical role in controlling crime. At the same time, confessions have historically been the subject of tremendous controversy, with questions arising over the years as to whether a confession is voluntary and authentic, and even whether such a statement is the result of an individual competently waiving his or her rights. In the United States, courts have taken steps to establish guidelines regarding the admission of confessions at trial in an effort to protect the constitutional rights of individuals and reduce the chance that someone would be induced to confess to a crime that he or she did not commit.

The Function and Purposes of a Pre-interrogation Interview

Interrogations are typically not the first situation in which a suspect is questioned. Instead, law enforcement usually conducts an interview that is neutral in nature in order to gather information. The primary goal of this interview is to assist law enforcement in determining whether the individual is innocent or guilty. This type of interview may be based on extrinsic evidence, including information provided by informants or witnesses.

Miranda: You Have the Right to Remain Silent…

If law enforcement deems a suspect to appear deceptive during the interview, the next step is usually the more confrontational interrogation, during which a number of strategies and tactics may be used. In order to provide citizens with protection during the transition from the pre-interrogation interview to the interrogation, the law requires law enforcement to advise suspects of their Miranda rights. Such rights were the result of Miranda v. Arizona (1966): a landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement must inform any suspect in custody of his or her constitutional rights, including the right to remain silent, while being advised that anything he or she says can and will be held against them in a court of law. Suspects are also advised of their right to consult with an attorney, and that if they are not able to afford an attorney, one will be appointed to them. Any statements produced by the accused can also be admitted into evidence if the suspect waives his or her rights “voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently.”

The Capacity to Waive Miranda Rights

The question of whether a suspect actually has the capacity to waive his or her Miranda rights is one that is naturally of the utmost importance. Although the Miranda warning and waiver requirement was intended to offer protection, there are two important reasons why it may not be as effective as originally intended. For instance, suspects may lack the capacity to understand and apply those rights due to their age, lack of education, intelligence, or mental health status.

How Police Overcome Miranda

Miranda warnings may also prove to be ineffective in offering protection due to the fact that the law enforcement community has become somewhat adept at circumventing Miranda warnings by encouraging suspects to waive their rights. One of the ways in which the police often manage to overcome Miranda is by being sympathetic to suspects and positioning themselves as an ally. This often begins by making small talk and establishing a sense of rapport. Law enforcement may describe the Miranda process as a mere formality, thus minimizing its importance. It is not uncommon for law enforcement personnel to be trained in such specific strategies, all of which are designed to encourage suspects to speak even after they have invoked their rights. Although such conversations are technically off the record, any disclosures made at that point could be used as a basis for generating other types of evidence that could be admissible at court.

Why the Innocent Waive Their Rights

Given the serious nature of confessions and the potential consequences, the question is why an innocent individual would choose to waive his or her rights. Research has shown that persons with no previous felony record are actually more likely to waive their rights than individuals with prior experience with the criminal justice system.

Modern Police Interrogation—Interrogation as a Guilt-Presumptive Process

Overall, interrogations are viewed as guilt-presumptive processes, meaning that suspects are presumed to be guilty. The success of such an interrogation, by law enforcement, is typically measured by the ability of the police to elicit an admission of guilt from the suspect. This mind-set can have a specific effect on the way law enforcement interacts with suspects.

Interrogation as a Process of Social Influence

While the interrogation process is typically guilt-presumptive, the importance of analyzing the social influence tactics used to elicit confessions should be noted. This is of particular importance in cases in which individuals confess to crimes they did not actually commit. In the past, interrogations often involved physical tactics; however, modern law enforcement relies on psychologically oriented approaches.

Why People Confess: Theoretical Perspectives

The consequences of a confession can be devastating. Not only is the suspect’s personal liberty at risk, but he or she may also face a number of other penalties, such as community service, fines, etc. Depending on the geographic location, the death penalty may be a very real consequence. In light of such potential consequences, it is surprising that any suspect would ever confess in an interrogation. But experts have argued that humans have a natural and unconscious urge to confess in an effort to overcome remorse or feelings of guilt.

Why People Confess: Research Findings

Self-report studies, observational studies, and field and laboratory experiments all provide empirical evidence regarding the circumstances under which someone may voluntarily confess.

False Confessions

Studies regarding wrongful convictions have found that determinations regarding the falsity of a previously given confession may include several methods. For instance, a previous confession may be found to be false when it is discovered at a later time that no crime was ever committed. A confession might also be found to be false when evidence reveals that it was not physically possible for the individual to have committed the crime. For instance, if he or she was somewhere else at the time of the crime, the confession may be found false. Scientific evidence, including DNA tests, may also be used to link the real perpetrator to the crime.

Types of False Confessions

False confessions can be elicited under a number of circumstances, including emotional shock, and include three types of false confessions. Voluntary false confessions occur when an individual confesses without significant pressure or prompting. This could occur due to the wish to attract notoriety in the case of a highly profiled case, the need for self-punishment to mitigate feelings of guilt over an entirely different transgression, an inability to separate fact from fantasy, or as the result of mental illness. In some cases, individuals will voluntarily confess to a crime they did not commit in an effort to protect the real perpetrator. Compliant false confessions involve the suspect being induced by law enforcement to confess. This may occur when the suspect wishes to simply confess in an effort to avoid a threat, aversive situation, or in order to gain a reward. Internalized false confessions occur when an individual is innocent but also vulnerable and often subjected to extremely suggestive tactics of interrogation. In such instances, in addition to confessing to the crime, the individual may also actually begin to believe that they committed the transgression to the point of fabricating false memories of how the event occurred.

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