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Can anyone be convinced that they committed made-up crimes?

Last month, we wrote about some of the reasons why false criminal confessions are so common. In many cases, suspects are coerced into saying things they know are not true, either because they fear for their safety or do not understand their rights.

While it is less often discussed, there is another reason why someone might give a false confession: they were erroneously convinced of their own guilt. Humans are more susceptible to the power of suggestion than most of us care to admit. And research shows that many people can be prompted into "remembering" a crime from their youth that never actually happened.

In one recent study, Canadian researchers interviewed college students individually over the course of several weeks. Before doing so, they contacted family members of the participants and solicited details from their past - specifically things that happened between the ages of 11 and 14.

The participants were initially told about two events from their past. One of these events was a fabricated story, often involving the commission of a crime. Although fictional, it was sprinkled with some actual facts from a participant's past.

By the time the study was over, the majority of study participants had developed false memories of committing a crime or other serious events that never took place. Commenting on the results, one researcher explained that “all participants need to generate a richly detailed false memory is 3 hours in a friendly interview environment, where the interviewer introduces a few wrong details and uses poor memory-retrieval techniques.”

Although police interrogations tend to be more hostile than friendly, a similar phenomenon occurs - sometimes accidentally and sometimes on purpose. Interrogators often make suspects tell their stories over and over again. While they do, interrogators may subtly introduce details about the crime or crime scene. Suspects may then start incorporating those details into their own story. Pretty soon, the story supposedly provided by the suspect starts sounding like a confession.

Suspects who are young and/or mentally impaired are especially likely to make incriminating statements based on these subtle influences and manipulation techniques. But none of us is immune from the effects of such tactics. For this and other reasons, anyone being questioned by police should have an experienced criminal defense attorney by their side.

Source: Association for Psychological Science, "People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened," Jan. 15, 2015

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