It only takes a few hours for you to be convinced of a crime you didn’t commit. It’s a well-known psychological phenomenon.
This isn’t so much a “fun fact” as one that’s kind of awful if you really think about it. And it certainly has implications for questioning crime suspects (or perpetrating psychological abuse).
The criminal justice system relies heavily on the accuracy of human memory and the credibility of its testimonies. Yet, human memory is highly malleable and susceptible to suggestions and false implants. Some wrongful conviction cases suggest that innocent suspects, when questioned using certain tactics, can be led to believe and confess to committing crimes they never did.
This concept goes beyond our typical understanding of “false confessions.” It underscores the potential of forming vivid, detailed false memories of perpetrating serious crimes.
Can You Really Be Convinced of a Crime You Didn’t Commit?
A 2015 study psychologists published in the journal Psychological Science explains it all. It shows how someone can convince innocent participants they had committed crimes as grave as assault with a weapon in their teenage years. (In the years since, more research has corroborated the possibility.)
Lead psychological scientist Julia Shaw from the University of Bedfordshire, UK led the study. She found that a certain type of questioning can help generate these false memories relatively easily. Her team used a friendly interview environment, introduced a few incorrect details, and applied poor memory-retrieval techniques. (Note – the students in the study volunteered, and an ethics review board assesses research plans).
For the study, the research team first contacted the caregivers of university students. They asked them to fill out questionnaires about specific events the students might have experienced from ages 11 to 14. And they instructed them not to discuss the questions with the student/subject.
The researchers then subjected the students to three 40-minute interviews about two events from their teenage years. One real and one was falsely constructed, but included some true details from their past.
The Surprising Results
The findings were startling. Out of the 30 participants told they had committed a crime as a teenager, 21 (or 71%) developed a false memory of the “crime”! A similar proportion, 76.67%, formed false memories of an emotional event they were told about.
The criminal false events seemed just as believable as the emotional ones. Students gave the same number of details, and reported similar levels of confidence, vividness, and sensory detail for both types of events.
Shaw and co-author Stephen Porter hypothesized that incorporating true details into a supposedly corroborated account probably provided enough familiarity to make the false event plausible.
However, there were slight differences in the memories for false events and true events. For example, participants reported more details and confidence in their descriptions of the true memories.
Implications and Applications
These findings emphasize the fundamental malleability of memory. The implications extend to various fields, notably criminal justice, legal procedures, and even therapeutic settings. They indicate the need for vigilance in situations where memory recollection is key. Clearly, the innocent can be led to generate rich false memories of emotional and criminal events!
The knowledge that innocent individuals can be led to create complex false memories quite easily serves as a cautionary tale. And it’s one that hopefully influences the interview techniques that could induce them.
This research also underscores the need for further investigations into the specific interview tactics that contribute to false memories. Understanding these factors can help improve interviewing procedures, and in turn, the integrity of our legal system.
Memory, a cornerstone of our identity and experiences, can be surprisingly plastic and fallible. By studying and understanding its limitations, we can better protect ourselves from the potential distortions. This is part of ensuring a more reliable justice system, and fostering better practices in situations where the accuracy of memory is critical.