APA Briefing Explains the Psychology behind False Confessions

The American Psychological Association (APA), a COSSA governing member, held a Congressional briefing on April 29, in conjunction with the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) Exhibition. The briefing featured Saul Kassin, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (also a COSSA member), who spoke about his research on false confessions. Kassin observed that it is often difficult for people to understand why someone would admit to a crime they did not commit. However, in his analysis of a database of convictions overturned by DNA evidence, Kassin found that more than a quarter of the wrongly convicted individuals had made a confession.

Kassin’s talk was divided into two sections: “Why innocent people confess” and “Why confessions trump innocence.” In the first section, he described some of the harrowing experiences of individuals who had been wrongly convicted after confessing and explained some of the factors that put suspects at risk of making a false confession. These include vulnerability of the suspect, interrogation tactics like lying about evidence or prolonging the interview, and suspects’ belief that the fact their innocence will absolve them of charges, regardless of what they do or say during the police interrogation. In the second section of his talk, Kassin noted that for most people, a confession means that a person is guilty. However, few people can differentiate a false confession from a real one, and juries are overwhelmingly swayed by confessions—even in cases where they are told to disregard it. Furthermore, innocent people who have confessed are more likely to take a guilty plea than those who have not, because they know how strongly their confession will count against them in the courtroom.

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