Study: Nature of memory may put people at risk for false confessions

A new study shows that people can develop false memories of crimes with minimal external encouragement, which could be a factor in false confessions.

The accuracy of human memory is often taken for granted in criminal justice procedures. The use of eyewitness testimony is one practice that may give too much credence to human memory. Another common and potentially problematic practice is the use of aggressive interrogation tactics. This practice also relies on the premise that stress or external knowledge won't influence a person's memory.

Unfortunately, this often is not the case. Recent research suggests that outside influences can do more than simply distort memories. The right stimuli may even make innocent people create false incriminating memories of serious offenses, such as violent crimes. This finding may help shed light on the significant number of wrongful convictions involving false confessions.

Implanting memories

In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers managed to manipulate participants into "remembering" crimes they never committed. The Toronto Star reports that researchers asked each participant's caregiver beforehand about a memorable event the participant experienced between ages 11 and 14. In later interviews, researchers told each participant that the caretaker had described two events from that time. The participants were asked to describe both events.

Researchers only gave participants vague prompts to help them remember the imaginary second event. Researchers mentioned an incident that led to police contact or an assault. They also encouraged participants who couldn't remember the incident to keep trying. If participants offered tentative memories, researchers asked for further description and encouraged the participants to visualize the incident.

After just three 40-minute interview sessions, 70 percent of the participants thought they had committed crimes during the past five years. Many participants "remembered" specific details and experienced strong emotions while thinking about the event. Even after researchers explained the experiment, some participants were still convinced that their false memories were legitimate.

Study limitations

These findings suggest that suspects facing questioning from authorities may also be vulnerable to generating false memories. However, The Toronto Star notes that there were a few important differences between these interviews and typical interrogations:

· The false memories took place when each participant was between 11 and 14 years old. The region of the brain responsible for memory formation is still developing at that stage. Thus, developing false memories that supposedly occurred at other ages could be more difficult.

· The researchers asked participants about events that had occurred less than five years before, or relatively recently. In contrast, police may interrogate suspects about alleged crimes that occurred much further back.

· The interview tactics used were much milder than the ones authorities use. In real interrogations, prolonged questioning and aggressive tactics may exhaust suspects and raise the risk of false memories or confessions.

Given these complex factors, it is impossible to definitively say that suspects similarly fabricate memories during interrogations. Still, the demonstration that memories can be generated so easily has alarming implications for people facing wrongful accusations.

Avoiding false confessions

Statistics show that false confessions are not as uncommon as many people would believe. According to US News, out of 873 DNA exonerations made between January 1989 and February 2012, 135 involved false confessions. Statistics in Georgia reflect a similar pattern. The Athens Banner-Herald reports that, of the eight wrongful conviction victims who have received compensation since 2000, one gave a false confession.

Anyone facing criminal charges should appreciate the apparent potential for false memories and associated confessions. Speaking to a defense attorney before talking to authorities may be advisable for anyone in this position.

Keywords: criminal justice,violent crimes,Study limitations,Avoiding false confessions,defense attorney,criminal charges,Psychological Science,researchers

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