New research has found that people are often surprisingly willing to confess to having committed crimes – even when they're innocent, or when the crimes never actually took place.
According to psychboffins Julia Shaw of the University of Bedfordshire, UK and Stephen Porter of the University of British Columbia, Canada, interviewers need only seed their questions with a few "wrong details" to cause false memories to form in subjects' minds.
"Our findings show that false memories of committing crime with police contact can be surprisingly easy to generate, and can have all the same kinds of complex details as real memories," Shaw said in a statement.
To prove the point, the researchers gave a questionnaire to the primary caregivers of 60 university students, asking then to describe events that the students experienced between the ages of 11 and 14. The boffins then brought the students in to their lab for a series of three 40-minute interviews about their past histories.
The twist? Although the scientists asked each student about two different life events, only one of the events mentioned in the questioning actually happened. The other event was pure fiction, but a surprising number of test subjects came to believe it happened anyway, even when it involved them committing a crime.
Of the 30 students who were told they had done something that led to a run-in with police, 71 per cent were classified as having developed a false memory of the crime following the interviews. Of those, 11 who had been told their crime was an assault of some kind reported "elaborate false memory details of their exact dealings with police."
Other students were told they had experienced "emotional events," such as a personal injury, being attacked by a dog, or losing a large amount of money. In these cases, 77 per cent of study participants formed false memories.
Among the tricks the researchers used was to pepper the false account with real-life details provided by the subjects' caregivers, such as the name of an actual childhood friend. Scientists believe this and the fact that the accounts were supposedly corroborated by the students' caregivers were what caused the false memories to germinate.
"In such circumstances, inherently fallible and reconstructive memory processes can quite readily generate false recollections with astonishing realism," Shaw said. "In these sessions we had some participants recalling incredibly vivid details and re-enacting crimes they never committed."
Shaw said her research, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, has clear implications for criminal interrogation and other aspects of legal procedure.
"By empirically demonstrating the harm 'bad' interview techniques – those which are known to cause false memories – can cause, we can more readily convince interviewers to avoid them and to use 'good' techniques instead," Shaw said. ®