Why innocent suspects may confess to a crime

Saturday, February 19, 2011

WASHINGTON - A new Iowa State University study has examined why innocent suspects may confess to a crime.

In two experiments simulating choices suspects face in police interrogations, undergraduate subjects altered their behavior to confess to illegal activities in order to relieve short-term distress (the proximal consequence) while discounting potential long-term (distal) consequences.

“The thing about these exoneration cases is that they all pertained to heinous crimes; that’s why there was DNA evidence available. And so we wanted to determine why someone may be willing to falsely confess to one of those crimes,” said Stephanie Madon, an ISU associate professor of psychology and the study’s lead author.

For the first study, the researchers interviewed subjects about their prior criminal and unethical behaviors, with their admissions and denials each paired with proximal or distal consequences.

Researchers found that participants shifted their admissions to avoid the short-term consequence of repetitive questions.

“What we found is that our participants clearly made admission decisions on the basis of the proximal consequence. They would admit to having done some criminal or unethical behavior in order to avoid answering repetitive questions. And they did that even though they knew that it increased the likelihood that they would have to meet with the police officer in several weeks to discuss their answers in more detail,” said Madon.

However, in the second experiment, the subjects were again interviewed about their prior criminal and unethical behaviors but this time, the proximal and distal consequences were reversed from the first experiment.

So the proximal consequence was meeting with the police officer immediately after the interview, while the distal consequence was to return to the lab in several weeks to answer the repetitive questions.

“Once again, the participants’ admissions were shaped by the proximal consequences. They did not want to meet with the police officer. And so, they responded in a way that got them out of doing that-even though it increased their likelihood of coming back in several weeks to answer repetitive questions,” said Madon.

The findings have been posted online by the journal Law and Human Behavior. (ANI)

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