Why Do People Admit to Crimes They Didn't Commit?

In 1989, after extensive police interrogation, five teens admitted that they’d raped a female jogger in Central Park. The young men, who became known as the Central Park Five, later recanted their stories, but were found guilty anyway. When a serial rapist confessed to the crime in 2002, confirmed by DNA evidence, the five were exonerated -- and paid $41 million USD in a settlement with New York City. But why would anyone admit to something they didn’t do? Canadian researchers studying the phenomenon in 2015 found that innocent people can be easily convinced that they committed a crime when they were young, after only a few hours of discussion interlaced with real facts. In fact, 71 percent of the study participants developed a false memory of a crime, and more than half of those told that they’d assaulted someone created false memories of their dealings with police -- none of which actually happened.

Anatomy of a false confession:

  • The researchers said that using true details in their false accounts -- such as the name of an actual friend -- helped study subjects believe that the made-up stories from the past were plausible, and true.
  • Other high-profile crimes, such as the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping and the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, have generated loads of voluntary false confessions.
  • Some people confess to attract attention. Others cave when faced with a grueling interrogation, to appease the interrogator or just to make it stop. Still others are actually persuaded that they’re guilty.
More Info: Association for Psychological Science

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