We’ve all seen the TV crime dramas. When it is time to interrogate a suspect, investigators use a number of tactics: the bright overhead lights, hours of questioning, good cop vs. bad cop, threats, intimidation and bargaining. These are all meant to get to the truth and elicit a confession. In real life, these tactics may very well elicit a confession, but that doesn’t mean it will be truthful.
It may seem difficult to understand why someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit. But it happens more frequently than most people realize, and it is often related to the tactics investigators use to bully suspects into compliance. One of those tactics, which we’ll discuss in today’s post, is sleep deprivation.
For a recent study, researchers had 88 college students come in for two sessions to complete some computer tasks. The sessions were a week apart, and students were warned several times that if they pressed the “escape” key, the researchers would lose their saved data.
After the second session was finished, the students participated in a slumber party of sorts. Half of them actually slept in the lab, while the other half stayed up most or all of the night. They played video games, watched TV and ate free food.
The next day, each student was asked to sign a statement confirming that they had pressed the escape key during the experiment. This statement was false and researchers knew that. Among students who were well-rested, only 18 percent agreed to sign it. Among the sleep-deprived students, however, the compliance rate was about 50 percent.
The stakes are obviously a lot higher for individuals accused of a crime. But sleep deprivation makes it harder to think clearly. Moreover, many suspects who end up falsely confessing to crimes have other factors working against them: They may be young, poor or have cognitive disabilities. They may be completely unaware of their legal rights.
The scary reality is that nearly any of us could end up giving a false confession under certain circumstances – a fact that many investigators use to their advantage. That’s why anyone being interrogated by the police should understand and exercise one of their most important rights: To have a criminal defense attorney by their side before answering any questions.