Some psychologists have long theorized that it is possible for interrogators to use certain techniques to obtain false confessions from suspects by tricking them into believing that they committed the crime in question. The Association for Psychological Science noted that this phenomenon has been observed in the cases of some wrongfully-accused criminal suspects. However, Julia Shaw of the University of Bedfordshire and Stephen Porter at the University of British Columbia decided to put the theory to the test in a lab setting and conducted a study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Psychological Science. The above-embedded video coverage by Discovery Channel‘s DNews describes their findings.

The study, which included 60 adult college students as participants and was funded by the University of British Columbia’s Lashley and Mary Haggman Memory Research Award and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, demonstrated that 71% of those who were suggestively told that they had committed a crime in their youth developed vivid false memories of the event. As a control, 50% of the participants in the study were told instead that they had experienced an emotionally intense event that never took place using the same techniques. 76.67% of those who were asked to describe the false emotional event were found to have similarly developed false memories.

“Our findings show that false memories of committing crime with police contact can be surprisingly easy to generate, and can have all the same kinds of complex details as real memories… 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,” said Julia Shaw of the study’s findings.

To conduct the research, Shaw and Porter contacted the primary caregivers of the participants of the study and asked them to provide some details of some events that might have happened in the participant’s life between the ages of 11 and 14. The caregivers were told not to tell the participants what questions they were asked.

Over the course of three 40 minute interviews, interviewers asked the participants about two events portrayed as happening in their past, one being a true event from the interview with caretakers and another being a false event of either a criminal or emotional nature. Of the 30 who were told that they had committed a crime in their youth, 20 were told that they had committed assault either with or without a weapon. The interviewer carefully weaved real life details and friends’ names learned from the caretaker into the false stories, which Shaw said was key in convincing them that the events had occurred. Said Julia Shaw, “In such circumstances, inherently fallible and reconstructive memory processes can quite readily generate false recollections with astonishing realism… In these sessions we had some participants recalling incredibly vivid details and re-enacting crimes they never committed.”

During the second and third interviews, participants were asked to describe the events, and, in the case of the false one, were told to use suggestive memory-jogging techniques if they could not recall it. According to the study, 71% of the 30 participants who were told they had committed a crime “volunteered a detailed false account.” The study also noted that “these reported false memories of crime were similar to false memories of noncriminal events and to true memory accounts, having the same kinds of complex descriptive and multisensory components.”

Julia Shaw said her research could be helpful in identifying the types of interrogation techniques that lead to false confessions and convictions, “Understanding that these complex false memories exist, and that ‘normal’ individuals can be led to generate them quite easily, is the first step in preventing them from happening. By empirically demonstrating the harm ‘bad’ interview techniques – those which are known to cause false memories – can cause, we can more readily convince interviewers to avoid them and to use ‘good’ techniques instead.”

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