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The Interrogation and False Confession Link: Beyond Common Knowledge?. Presented at: The UC Irvine Undergraduate Research Symposium By: Jaclyn Appleby. May 13, 2006. Interrogation’s Evolution: Third degree to confidence game. The Advent of Psychological Interrogation.

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the interrogation and false confession link beyond common knowledge

The Interrogation and False Confession Link: Beyond Common Knowledge?

Presented at:

The UC Irvine

Undergraduate Research Symposium


Jaclyn Appleby

May 13, 2006

interrogation s evolution third degree to confidence game
Interrogation’s Evolution: Third degree to confidence game

The Advent of Psychological Interrogation

psychological interrogation
Psychological Interrogation
  • Repeatedly accusing the suspect of a crime
  • Repeatedly attacking the suspect’s alibi
  • Repeatedly interrupting the suspect’s denials
  • The lie detector test
  • Exaggerating/lying about evidence
  • Providing moral justifications/face saving alternatives
the myth of psychological interrogation innocent people do not confess
The Myth of Psychological Interrogation:Innocent people do not confess…
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that the general public believes that the use of psychology is not sufficiently coercive to elicit a false confession.
  • It is highly counter intuitive to believe that someone would confess to a crime they did not commit outside of the bounds of physical coercion, as doing so is in such obvious violation of self-interest.
false confessions do occur
False Confessions Do Occur…
  • Archival analyses identify false confession cases
    • Leo and Ofshe (1998) identified 60
    • Drizin and Leo (2004) identified 125
  • Researchers have produced false confessions in the laboratory
    • Kassin and Kiechel (1996)
    • Russano, Meissner, Narchet, and Kassin (2005)
and they are damning evidence
…and they are damning evidence
  • The mere presence of a confession drastically increases the likelihood of conviction (Kassin & Sukel, 1997) .
  • Confession evidence returns higher conviction rates than either eyewitness testimony or character testimony (Kassin & Neumann, 1997).
  • Studies have estimated that a false confessor faces a 78-85% risk of being wrongfully convicted if the case is not dismissed prior to trial (Leo & Ofshe, 1998; Drizin & Leo, 2004).
how do we protect the wrongfully accused from their false confession
How do we protect the wrongfully accused from their false confession?
  • Improved police training and education on the phenomenon of false confessions
  • Mandatory electronic recording of interrogations and confessions to provide an objective record
  • Changing the law to require confessions to meet a standard of reliability prior to admission
  • Expert witness testimony to educate judge and jury on the coerciveness of police interrogation and the possibility of the elicitation of false confessions
expert witness admissibility
Expert Witness Admissibility
  • The Federal Rules of Evidence provide a standard for courts to allow “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge [when it] assists the trier of fact to understand evidence or to determine a fact in issue” (Fed. R. Evid. 702).
  • In order to assist the trier of fact, the knowledge that the expert witness brings to the case must be beyond that of the average person.
what does the average person hold as common knowledge
What does the average person hold as common knowledge?
  • We do not know…
  • There has never been a published survey of public perceptions of the coerciveness of interrogation techniques and their ability to elicit true and false confessions.
  • The current study seeks to fill this empirical gap and determine what the average person, as a potential juror, believes in relationship to the coerciveness of interrogation and the elicitation of confessions.
does the general public acknowledge the coerciveness of psychological interrogation

Central Questions

Does the general public acknowledge the coerciveness of psychological interrogation?

Does the general public believe that psychological interrogation tactics can elicit false confessions?

  • Surveys distributed to 268 UCI undergraduates enrolled in an introductory criminology class
    • Jury eligible population
    • Proximity to researchers
  • Demographics
    • Gender
    • Age
      • Mean age 19.78
    • Victimization
      • 19.6% had been victim of serious crime
    • Death Penalty Support
survey measures
Survey Measures
  • Perceived coerciveness of interrogation techniques
    • Rate the degree to which you believe that each tactic is “coercive” (i.e., removes an individual’s perception of their freedom to make a meaningful choice) during a police interrogation; 1= not at all coercive, 5= extremely coercive
  • Perceived likelihood of interrogation techniques to elicit true confessions and false confessions
    • Rate the likelihood that each of the following tactics would elicit a true confession from the suspect during the interrogation; 1= not at all likely, 5= very likely
  • Subtle indicators
    • Importance that police have a confession to solve a case
    • Estimated time needed to elicit a confession
  • With the exception of giving a suspect a lie detector test, each of the techniques was rated as coercive (>3).
  • Lying to the suspect is seen as particularly coercive
    • The lie detector’s coerciveness rating increased by 163% when the clause “and falsely telling them the results show they are lying” is added (4.24).
    • Each technique utilizing a lie about evidence (surveillance, DNA, fingerprint) received coerciveness ratings exceeding 4.0.
  • Positive Coercion Bias
    • Implicit or explicit promises of leniency were viewed as less coercive than implicit or explicit threats of harm.
likelihood of eliciting confessions
Likelihood of eliciting confessions
  • With the exception of direct threat of physical violence and beating the subject, interrogation techniques were rated as significantly* more likely to elicit true than false confessions.
  • The smallest variations in significant likelihoods were seen for implicit (t=3.598) or explicit threats (t=4.578) of physical harm.

*Significance p<.001

likelihood of eliciting confessions1
Likelihood of eliciting confessions
  • Of the remaining techniques, the ones that were rated as most coercive (i.e. lying about lie detector results/evidence) were rated as unlikely to cause a false confession (<3).
  • Overall, people believe that interrogation techniques, though coercive work to elicit true confessions and do not elicit false confessions with any frequency.
subtle indicators
Subtle Indicators
  • Rated confessions as less important to solving a case than both DNA and eyewitness testimony.
    • Mock-jurors have demonstrated that confessions lead to convictions more frequently than eyewitness testimony.
subtle indicators1
Subtle Indicators
  • Mean estimate of time needed to elicit a confession was 7.88 hours, nearly five times the average interrogation time as reported by police investigators (Leo et al, forthcoming).
    • As interrogation duration increases, the likelihood of eliciting a false confession also increases.


  • While it appears on the face of the issue that the average person has sophisticated knowledge on the coerciveness of interrogation techniques, they lack knowledge about the links between interrogation and confession.
  • Though preliminary, this is the first demonstration that the average person does not understand the link between coercive interrogation and false confessions, thus the belief in the myth of psychological interrogation has received preliminary empirical support.
beyond common knowledge
Beyond Common Knowledge?
  • It appears that people understand that interrogation is coercive, so an expert witness explaining that interrogation techniques are coercive would not be necessary to educate the jury.
  • An expert talking about how coercive interrogation tactics can lead to a false confession would be beneficial to a jury and could help to serve as a safeguard for the wrongfully accused.
  • Thank you to:
    • Dr. Richard Leo
    • Dr. Jodi Quas
    • Dr. Valerie Jenness
    • Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program
    • Research participants
for further information
For further information

Please direct correspondence to:

Jaclyn N. Appleby

Department of Criminology, Law, and Society

University of California, Irvine