Prof Gisli H Gudjonsson: 40 years’ worth of scientific research shows anyone can be coerced into a false confession

By Prof Gisli H Gudjonsson CBE

Prof Gisli H. Gudjonsson

In a new article in Frontiers in Psychology I review the developments of the science of false confessions during the past 40 years through three established error pathways to false confessions and wrongful convictions: misclassification, coercion, and contamination. It shows the extraordinary advances that have been made in identifying false confessions, the processes involved, the most pertinent risk factors, and positive impact on legal judgments, fairness, and justice.

There are three main psychological types of false confessions (voluntary, coerced-compliant, and coerced-internalized) and each one involves a different process, psychological vulnerabilities, and impact on belief systems and memory processes.

There is now a substantial evidence base to assist the police in preventing false confessions happening and assisting the judiciary in identifying and understanding cases of false confessions.

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How common are false confessions?

There are no central records kept of false confessions nationally or internationally. DNA exonerations in the USA show that about 25% of cases involve innocent suspects being coerced to give false confessions. Many are forced to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit via a plea-bargaining process to avoid a long prison sentence or the death penalty.

Community, prison, and police station studies show that a reported history of false confession during custodial interrogation is commonly found in a sizeable proportion (typically between 10% and 25%) of people surveyed. False confessions are much more common than previously envisaged and this is now generally accepted.

‘Police investigators, judges, fact finders and legal practitioners must always be aware of the potential fragility of suspects’ confessions, however superficially plausible and convincing they might appear’

Anthony Heaton-Armstrong in book review of "The Psychology of False Confessions: Forty Years of Science and Practice"

Who would confess to a serious crime that they had not committed?

Here I argue that it used to be thought, until detailed analysis of real-life cases, peer-reviewed research, and DNA exonerations that began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s, that only those with intellectual disabilities or mental illness were susceptible to giving false confessions during police questioning. This ‘common sense’ view is a fallacy. False confessions are caused by a dynamic process and a combination of ‘risk factors’, which is not confined to the mentally impaired. In fact, most of those who give a coerced confession to police are not mentally impaired and their false confession are caused by a combination of risk factors.

What are the risk factors to false confession?

A risk factor is a circumstance (notoriety of the crime, pressure on police to solve a crime), a particular custodial situation (length, frequency, and nature of the interrogation), or personal vulnerabilities (young age, suggestibility, mental state) that increase the likelihood of a false confession occurring.

We have identified a group of 17 risk factors that are known to increase the likelihood of false confessions. It is the salience, severity, and number of risk factors combined that increases the risk of false confession creating a cumulative disadvantage.

The manipulation of vulnerabilities increases risk of false confession

Here I argue that most people have ‘vulnerabilities’ that can be manipulated by police during questioning to produce a false confession, given ‘special’ circumstances. Circumstances, the nature, length and conditions of the police questioning, and individual vulnerabilities all matter. Theoretically, next time it could be any one of us who are coerced to make a false confession.

The importance of contamination

One of the important lessons to learn from cases of wrongful conviction, is that once the police have obtained a false confession from a suspect, it contaminates the entire legal process and makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to correct. This is due to the cumulative disadvantage that permutates from the initial misguided investigative mind set through to the trial and appeal processes. The wrongly convicted can rarely prove their innocence, which is often hampered by the authorities’ lack of transparency, accountability, and cooperation.

Memory distrust and confabulation

In 1982, together with James AC MacKeith, I introduced the term ‘memory distrust syndrome’ to describe the memory vulnerabilities and processes that produced internalized false confessions. According to our study, this special type of false confession usually involves a five-sequential-stage process - trigger, plausibility, acceptance, memory reconstruction and resolution - leads to belief changes and provoked confabulation. The ‘confused state’ is typically short-lived, but in exceptional circumstances, it may last for months or even years.

The ‘blame game’

Even if ultimately acquitted, the police, prosecution and judiciary are often reluctant to accept responsibility for wrongful conviction, continuing to place the blame on the false confessors themselves, who can see no end to their suffering and sense of injustice. The authorities admitting mistakes and learning from them is a crucial way to prevent future miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions.

The suspects in the 1974 Guðmundur and Geirfinnur case (also known as the Reykjavik Confessions). In 2018, the Icelandic Supreme Court acquitted Sævar Ciesielski, Kristján Viðar Viðarsson, Tryggvi Rúnar Leifsson, Albert Klahn Skaftason, and Guðjón Skarphéðinsson, but did not reverse Erla Bolladóttir's conviction. Image credit: Iceland Review

Gisli H Gudjonsson is an Icelandic-British academic, forensic psychologist, former police detective, emeritus professor at the Institute of Psychiatry of King's College London, and professor in the psychology department at Reykjavik University. One of the world's leading experts on false memory syndrome, he has helped to resolve notorious miscarriages of justice such as the Reykjavik Confessions, the Birmingham Six, and the Guildford Four.

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