How Easy It Is to Plant False Memories

How Easy It Is to Plant False Memories January 19, 2015

Of the nearly 350 people who have now been freed from prison for crimes they did not commit by the Innocence Project and their use of DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongly convicted, about 25% of them involved people who had confessed to the crime. Why would people confess to a crime they didn’t commit? This article explains how easy it is for police to plant false memories during interrogation:

Memory’s a pretty fluid and complex thing. We don’t always remember specific details of an event well, and what details we do remember can be influenced by stuff that happened after the event itself. This is all pretty standard when it comes to memory research. What the authors of a new paper in Psychological Science just pulled off, though, takes things to a whole new level: They were able to convince study participants they had committed a crime that was completely fabricated.

From the study itself:

Participants were asked to explain what happened during each of the events in turn, after the interviewer provided some accurate cues from the caregiver questionnaire, including the city that the participant lived in and the name of a friend the participant had at the time of the alleged event (a friend who was supposedly present during the event). The interviewer also provided a number of cues, including the participant’s age at the time of the event, the season when it took place, and an indication that the caregiver was involved after the event occurred; for the true event, these were accurate cues, and for the false event, they were randomly assigned inaccurate cues. As expected, participants successfully provided an account of the true event but were unable to provide an account of the false event in the first interview … When participants had difficulty recalling the false event, the interviewer encouraged them to try to remember it, and (falsely) told them that most people can remember these kinds of memories if they try hard enough. Then, participants were told that the study was an examination of memory-retrieval methods, and they were asked to use context reinstatement and guided imagery to retrieve the memory. They also were told to practice visualization of the false event each night at home. These methods have been shown to effectively generate details that form the foundations of false memories[.]

And what that study concludes:

If you want more details, the study, which is unlocked, has them, but the key takeaway is that by the end of the third interview, after a bunch of carefully crafted nudging to do their best to remember, a full 70 percent of the students said, “Yep, I committed that crime when I was younger,” and they “volunteered … detailed false account[s]” of those crimes.

It’s a pretty stunning example of just how malleable memory is, and how open to suggestion people can be in certain circumstances.

There are other factors that make it even easier for police interrogators to get people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit as well, like the fact that they can lie to the suspects. They tell them that they have evidence that they don’t actually have, that the case against them is air tight and if they confess, it will lessen their sentence. They tell them they have their fingerprints or DNA evidence at the scene that proves they did it when they actually don’t.

Also, a lot of the people they’re interrogating have cognitive problems or mental illness, they’re often poor and uneducated and know they can’t afford an attorney to defend them. You combine all those things together and that’s how you get false confessions a staggering amount of the time.


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