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Surprising Science

Why People Give False Confessions

Of 271 people exonerated by D.N.A. evidence since 1992, around a quarter of people had confessed or pleaded guilty to the offences of which they were accused.

What’s the Latest Development?

In a series of studies, it has become clear that inducing people to confess to a crime they didn’t commit is disturbingly easy. One conducted at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice sat individuals in front of a computer and assigned them a series of key sequences to press. The subjects were told not to press the ALT key, and that if they did, the computer would crash. In truth, the computer was designed to crass 100 percent of the time. After crashing, the subjects were asked if they pressed the ALT key. About a quarter confessed. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Why would people confess to a crime they didn’t commit, especially when that confession might carry very serious consequences? Researchers suspect that confessing to a crime is seen as a way to end the unpleasant process of interrogation: “Participants may have the naive—though common—belief that the world is a just place, and that their innocence will emerge in the end, particularly in the case of the alleged video evidence.” While some places require corroborating evidence, often a confession is enough to close a criminal case. 


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