False confessions: Even judges are biased by camera perspective

When a suspect confesses to a crime, it's often seen as a clear victory for the prosecution. But what if the confession was coerced? Under the emotional strain of an interrogation, it happens more often than you'd think. In response to the problem of coercion, many police departments now videotape interrogations. This should eliminate all potential for abuse, right? Wrong. Teams led by Daniel Lassiter have found that when the camera is focused on the suspect instead of both the suspect and the interrogator, people are more likely to view the confession as voluntary rather than coerced (the video the viewers saw was based on the transcript of an actual false confession). Even when a judge warns jurors of the potential for bias due to camera perspective, the bias still occurs.

But perhaps judges and law-enforcement professionals, trained in the handling of suspects and interrogations, won't be swayed by the camera angle of a videotaped confession. Lassiter's team has just completed a study which shows confession footage to both groups:

The researchers presented participants with different versions of the confession in which the camera focused on only the suspect, only the detective, or both suspect and detective. Participants assessed how voluntarily the suspect confessed in each case.

The study found that judges and law enforcement officers considered the suspect-focus version of the confession to be more voluntary than the equal-focus and detective-focus versions.

"The phenomenon (camera-perspective bias) is rooted in a naturally occurring perceptual bias that affects everyone and which cannot be readily overcome regardless of people's expertise or the amount of professional training they have received," Lassiter said.

Lassiter recommends a side-view or even a detective-view perspective to eliminate this bias. Several jurisdictions have adapted their videotaping guidelines based on this research, but many continue to use a camera focused only on the suspect, which has now been show to cause bias even in trained professionals like police officers and judges.

Update: Interesting coincidence -- another confession makes the news today. This one wasn't videotaped at all, though. Mohammed in fact specifically states that coercion took place in his confession.


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I want to see a study that compares the readiness of police to consider a confession valid versus the general population for the same conditions. And then I want to see a comparison between groups of different incomes or social status.

Given that the interrogation may run 40 hours straight, what parts of the grueling relentless attack will the police be obliged to put on camera?

This parallels one of the many flaws in polygraphs: only the subject is recorded, so that the acts of the interrogator are kept concealed, making it look like the subject is responding only to the wording of the question, not to tone of voice, shift in tone, shift in physical position, or a sudden appearance of readiness to physically attack.

By Roy, again (not verified) on 15 Mar 2007 #permalink

Mark: That comparison could be made in the case of Lassiter's studies, depending on their methods, since Lassiter has tested both "the public" and police officers. And I agree that other things such as social status are probably factors. But it's still fascinating that something like the camera angle can have such a dramatic effect.

Roy: One would hope that the entire interrogation would be put on camera (ideally from the side-view perspective), and that both prosecutors and defenders would have access to it. And as a practical matter, it would seem that you would need to record the entire interrogation in order to capture the moment of confession.

Interesting. I can't help thinking that this type of bias is central to 'narrative' construction and happens all the time in cinema. In many ways, it fits in neatly with cognitive film theory. Fascinating.