False confessions are more common than people think. Exoneration work and DNA testing reveal that police-induced false confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions of the innocent. More than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted, but later exonerated by DNA, made false confessions or gave false incriminating statements. That’s astonishing. Given what a huge problem this is, we’ve got to ask: why do so many false confessions happen in our country?
The New Yorker magazine has an interesting take on why we have so many false confessions. For decades, most police forces around the country have used a profoundly problematic method called the “Reid Technique” to induce confessions. The influence of the Reid Technique is present in pretty much all American police interrogations. It is an adversarial, accusatory interrogation. The tone is confrontational and presumes the suspect’s guilt. The underlying goal of the interrogation is to not allow denials, to make the suspect confess. Once the interrogator decides that the suspect is lying – using often misleading non-verbal clues, like the person’s visible discomfort – a successful interrogator must push the person to confess. The technique instructs interrogators to rationalize and minimize the crime, lie about the evidence, and give the suspect a reason to admit the crime.
If the goal is just to get confessions, it’s an effective method. Proponents of the Reid Technique brag that interrogations using the methods lead to confessions 80% of the time. But it’s that success rate that is at the heart of false confessions. Prioritizing getting confessions, rather than getting accurate information, leads to false confessions. Saul Kassin, a psychology professor and leading researcher on false confessions, explains why. The American style interrogation makes some suspects so stressed and broken down that they start to feel hopeless about their situation and conclude that a confession offers their only hope. Additionally, when the police lie about evidence — falsely telling suspects that things like DNA, fingerprints, surveillance footage, or polygraph results implicate them— and feed suspects all of the details about the crime, some accused become confused. Eventually, some suspects start to believe it when the interrogators tell them that they must have committed the crime and repressed the memory. Audiotapes of some interrogations provide powerful, true examples of how deceptively enticing confessing could be with this method.
Contrast this accusatory interrogation technique with the information-gathering interrogation method used in most of the rest of the western democratic world. In other countries, instead of trying to manipulate and control the suspect, the interrogator tries to establish a rapport with the suspect and learn as much information as possible. Instead of simply trying to get the suspect to confirm what the police already know, the information-gathering method asks open-ended questions and lets the suspect talk and talk. The interrogators use inconsistencies in the suspect’s narrative, changing details, or unexplained insider’s knowledge to detect deception, rather than the Reid technique of looking for people who seem anxious and uncomfortable during the interrogation.
Studies have shown that the American, accusatorial technique of interrogating people yields more confessions. But it also significantly increases the number of false confessions. The information-gathering method leads to fewer confessions, but it helps police accurately solve crimes because the interrogators are open to learning new information from suspects instead of sticking to a strict script. And, most importantly, the information-gathering interrogation method dramatically decreases the number of false confessions obtained. False confessions mean that there are real people serving real time for crimes they did not commit. It also means that the true criminals are on the streets and able to continue committing crimes. We simply must prioritize truth seeking over inducing confessions at any cost.