Cognitive Daily

[article originally posted July 6, 2005]

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifToday’s article is one of my all-time favorites. It was originally written by Katherine Kiechel, an undergraduate at Williams College as part of her honors thesis, and could serve as a model for others in its simplicity and ingenuity (the report I’m discussing here was revised and coauthored by her professor, Saul Kassin: “The Social Psychology of False Confessions: Compliance, Internalization, and Confabulation,” Psychological Science, 1996). Some empirical work has been done on false confessions, and at least one example of a genuine false confession has been reported: Paul Ingram, who confessed to the satanic slaughter of new-born babies, was later accused by a psychologist of a bogus crime. Though initially he denied it, eventually he “confessed,” even fabricating new details about the supposed crime.

There are even manuals which advise police on the best way to extract confessions from suspects, which generally involve some level of deceit on the part of the interrogator. Though confessions extracted using threats or physical violence are typically disallowed by the courts, these milder techniques are generally accepted, and result in conviction and prison time for the accused.

However, Kassin and Kiechel were unaware of any experimental study of false confessions. Indeed, a study of false confessions for criminal behavior would probably be unethical, so they devised a task with significantly smaller stakes.

Participants—psychology majors at Williams College who participated for course credit—were told they were taking part in a study of reaction times. They were tested in groups of two, one of which was a confederate. The confederate read a list of letters to the naive participant, who then typed them into a computer as quickly as possible. Before the experiment began, participants were instructed not to hit the Alt key, as this would cause the computer to crash and data to be lost. Sure enough, about one minute into the experiment, the computer did “crash”—without the participant doing anything wrong—and the distraught experimenter rushed into the room and immediately accused them of hitting the Alt key.

Participants were then asked to sign a confession. If they refused, they were asked again. Sixty-nine percent eventually signed. Finally, when they left the experiment room, a second confederate was sitting in the waiting area, apparently ready to participate in the next session. The experimenter told this confederate she’d have to be rescheduled and left the room. To assess if they actually believed their confession, the second confederate asked the participant what happened. Twenty-eight percent of participants expressed belief in their guilt to this stranger, indicating that they had “pressed the wrong key” or something similar.

Finally, the experimenter brought the participant back to the original room and asked them to re-enact the mishap. This was done to see if people would confabulate, or invent, details supporting their confession. Nine percent of them did.

Kassin and Kiechel varied the conditions of the experiment in four ways. First, they made the reaction time task either slow and relaxed or fast and frenzied by using a metronome to time the letter-reading task (they had established earlier that a pace of 43 letters a minute was easy, but 67 was difficult). Second, they either had the confederate corroborate by falsely saying that she had seen the participant press the Alt key or truthfully say that she did not notice anything. This chart of results shows that these circumstances affect the results significantly:


The difference between having a corroborating witness or not was quite astounding. While 35 percent of those in the slow/no witness condition signed a confession, 100 percent of the fast/witness condition did. Even under the fast/no witness condition, only 12 percent internalized belief in their guilt by admitting it to the second confederate. Most shocking of all is the fact that in the fast/witness condition, 65 percent internalized their guilt, and 35 percent confabulated evidence. Since these are conditions that are quite similar—and possibly less extreme—to those advised in police handbooks for obtaining confessions, the rates of internalization and confabulation are strikingly high.

In a 2004 article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Saul Kassin and Gisli Gudjonsson report on follow-up research to the Kassin/Kiechel 1996 study, in which participants were told of punishments for confessing ranging from fines to 10 hours of free labor to repair the error. Despite these negative consequences, the researchers found similar effects. However, another follow-up found a much lower rate of confession when the key was the Esc key, a less plausible key to strike accidently.

Kassin, S.M. & Kiechel, K.L. (1996). The social psychology of false confessions: Compliance, internalization, and confabulation. Psychological Science, 7(3), 125-128.


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    July 17, 2006

    Anecdote: I made a false confession to a cop once, although it wasn’t so much of a confession as me musing.

    I had been hit by a car. I was on a unicycle at the time (yes, yes), which the cop treated as a bicycle (although according to a strict reading of the California Vehicle Code, I was technically a pedestrian). It was a two-way stop intersection, and I had the stop sign.

    This was early in the morning, and the Sun was low on the horizon in the east. Acutely aware of this, I went into the intersection slowly, carefully looking to the east to make sure there wasn’t some hard-to-see car coming out of the sun about to nail me.

    What ended up happening was I got nailed by a car driving *into* the sun who didn’t see me. I fly through the air, bump my head (lots of blood, no injury, but who knows about short-term memory loss) and break my wrist.

    The cop comes to interview me in the ER while I’m sitting there waiting for the result of my wrist interview. I tell him what happened. I did *not* see the car coming from my right. I was very surprised there was a car there at all. I’m thinking out loud trying to figure out why I couldn’t have seen that car. I say, “maybe I didn’t even look to the right.”

    Thanks to that statement, the cop assigned blame 50/50 in the accident. I called him later to figure out where the hell that came from, and he said that I had the stop sign and I said I didn’t even look to the right.

    I went back a few days later and did a few things. First, I measured the length of the tire skidmark, and figured out that the person hitting me was probably going 10mph or so over the speed limit. (The cop made no notice of the skidmark.) I did this with some freshman physics and a guess at the coefficient of friction, but talked to a friend of mine who’d been through law enforcement training and who told me that I got the same range of answers as was in his look-up tables. Second, to the right, the street curved a block down. With my friend, I timed how long it took for a car going at various different speeds to come around the curve (and first be visible) and reach the beginning of the skidmark. Sure enough, it wasn’t a lot of time– easily little enough time that given that I was crossing the intersection slowly, I looked but then got nailed.

    So the real scenario is that I’m at an intersection, I check (as I always did) the side that’s easy to see, see no danger, and forget about it, and then spend all my concentration worrying about the side that’s hard to see. Meanwhile, a car comes around the curve on the easy side, going above the speed limit, doesn’t see me until it’s too late, slams on the breaks, and hits me.

    I was pretty annoyed, but I had health insurance and didn’t bother to push it. Still, I can trace to that moment a serious decline in my general trust of cops. I had always figured that they were very competent and careful and tended to know what they were doing. That day, I realized how stupid that was; they’re just like everybody else. If it’s an annoying little thing, they want to have the quick and easy answer to check the box and file it away so that they won’t have to worry about it any more. Everybody’s a little lazy.

    In the end, it didn’t matter. But, from what the cop said, a big part of the reason that the blame was assigned 50/50 was my musing false confession. Unlike some in the study, though, I didn’t come to believe that my false confession was really right.

    -Rob the Long Blog Comment Poster

  2. #2 David McCabe
    July 17, 2006

    Possible source of inaccuracy in the results: Totally implausible crime. Does anyone really believe that hitting the Alt key will cause data loss? Are the people who they say believe the confessions being sarcastic? If this happened to me, I like to think that I would immediately know that I was in such an experiment, or else on Candid Camera.

  3. #3 Harald Korneliussen
    July 18, 2006

    David, point today, but when was the test done? There have been some seriously stupid interfaces to text editors through the years (Some of them are still in use on Linux ;-). In one infamous example, if you entered the word “edit” in the wrong mode, it would select (e)verything, (d)elete, go to (i)nsert mode and put in the letter (t) – thus making undo impossible.

    The experiment would have been better, IMHO, if the participants were not told of the risk of deletion, and then were “accused” of hitting ctrl-t, shift-space, shift-enter or some other plausible key combo which could indeed have caused catastrophic results in many editors.

  4. #4 Richard
    July 18, 2006

    @ David —

    Remember, there’s a lot of people out there who are almost completely computer illiterate. Anybody who has seen my mother become convinced that her keyboard doesn’t have an ‘x’ key when she couldn’t find it, would find it easy to believe that people would buy the set-up of the ‘crime’ in this experiment.

  5. #5 David McCabe
    July 18, 2006

    Now, here’s a question: Why is it that we sometimes can’t find something even by doing a linear search for it? Our brains seem to skip over it no matter how much attention we’re paying.

    Anyways, you’d have to specifically select technophobes for this to work, I think. And even such selection would tip them off.

  6. #6 Milt
    July 18, 2006

    I’ve been a programmer professionally for 10+ years. If an experimenter told me that pressing the Alt key made their app crash, I’d have absolutely no problem believing it, provided the app wasn’t well known.

  7. #7 Ethan Sapperstein
    July 18, 2006

    Computer literacy aside, I think a larger concern is the lack of consequence of a confession. In a consequence-free environment, a subject would be more likely to conceed wrongdoing, despite believing or knowing they were not at fault; the reason for this being the costs of arguing (against one more knowledgeable in the program, and possibly a witness) greatly exceeds the apparent zero-cost of confession. Real world confessions obviously have far more weighty consequences.

    This is not to say the study is not valid, but rather that the lack of consequences or punishments masks more accurate data.

  8. #8 Kris
    July 18, 2006

    Yeah, the lack of consequence is a big factor here, but also, the end of the article points to another problem with the experiment:

    “However, another follow-up found a much lower rate of confession when the key was the Esc key, a less plausible key to strike accidently.”

    Not only will people possibly confess to a crime they didn’t commit when there is no (or little) punishment, but they will also confess when it actually possible that they did commit the crime. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t think I did it, but maybe I hit the alt key and didn’t realize it. I’ll sign the confession.” But that’s entirely different from “Well I guess maybe I stole that car and didn’t realize it,” or “Maybe I did murder that guy…”

  9. #9 Howtobewebsmart
    July 18, 2006

    There are two books that address some of the concerns you mentioned: Barry Schwartz ‘The Paradox of Choice’ and Surowiecki’s ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’.

    The idea is that we don’t have total control over our decision making, but rather are subject to multiple powerful influences that quickly sway us. People confess, when they didn’t do something, because of the doubt imposed by a ‘sure’ investigator.

    I didn’t explain that very well…but hopefully it made sense.

  10. #10 Be
    July 18, 2006

    The only thing this seems demonstrate is that people are aware how close the alt-key is to the spacebar. It’s a whole world of difference for someone to “confess” to what is nothing more than a mistakenly placed finger while typing, and a person falsely admitting to a rape. “Gee, I don’t remember raping that woman. But if you say so, I must have!” Duh.

  11. #11 S E E Quine
    July 18, 2006

    ` This reminds me of a friend of mine who, in grade school, children would tell the teacher that he’d done something wrong. He’d say, “I don’t remember that at all, but if he/she said I did, then I must have.” And he’d get punished.
    ` Bwaaa haaa haaaaa!

    ` You know, I remember seeing this very experiment being demonstrated on a B.B.C. documentary. (“Gee, I must have bumped it with my pinky!”)
    ` There were many more experiments that showed the weaknesses in the human mind: In one of them, 25 people were sitting in a room, counting how many times a basketball was passed from player to player in a video. Only two or three of them noticed that the video also had a person in a gorilla suit doing little gorilla things in the background!
    ` Yet another experiment had someone talking to a man wearing a yellow shirt with light hair. He went out of sight and another man with dark hair, a blue shirt and even a noticably different voice quickly popped into view in his place, pretending to be the same guy.
    ` NOBODY NOTICED!!! Bwaaa haaa haaaa!!!!!!!

  12. #12 commentor
    July 18, 2006

    I understand that the consequences presented here are not the most heinous of nature, but during a full blown interrogation for something such as murder, you need to really think about what the police are “offering” you.

    Imagine yourself sleep deprived. Imagine answering the same questions over and over for hours on end. You’re hungry. You’re thirsty. You’ve answered as many questions as you can, but they keep hammering on you for hours. They leave. They come back after an hour. They hold meetings where you can see them. They hold meeting where you can’t.

    Then they lay it on you. They have all the evidence they need to convict you. They have witnesses. They promise you that you will be in jail. They promise you will be raped. They promise your kids and wife will never see you again. All you have to do is sign a confession and you might get of jail in twenty years. Maybe fifteen or ten if the judge finds manslaughter or a crime of passion.

    You tell them whatever they want to hear. You’ll make it up. You’ll do anything to avoid life in prison (possibly a death sentence) to just get it over with. At the time of confession your not thinking about forty years in jail. You just want it to be over. You’re thinking, “I’m totally screwed. This is the only way out.”

  13. #13 Robert F. Schuler
    July 23, 2006

    This is happening to me . They are using microwave transmtters and monitoring my auditory cortex.I am not even sure of what I am being accused of.

  14. #14 Robert F. Schuler
    July 23, 2006

    Sleep deprivation,microwave torture,death threats against my family and I. ” you are dead and you know it !” is repeated every few minutes.I am being acussed of everything from 9-11 to drug trafficking and rape.This is all being done electronically,I have not been approached in person about any of these things.none of the law enforcement agencies will investigate what is happening.

  15. #15 alan Hirsch
    July 31, 2006

    Those interested in false confessions will find a wealth of information and ideas at

  16. #16 Katie
    March 14, 2007

    This is one of my favorite articles too. Does anyone know the references for the follow-up studies? The only one (that I came across) in Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Kassin and Gudjonsson is a review article. I’m writing a paper and presentation on this topic, so any comments would be appreciated.

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