The Psychology of False Confessions

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Issue 1, Volume 112

By Olivia Zheng 

On December 1, 2008, 16-year-old Nga Truong was interrogated following the death of her son, Khyle. During the interrogation, officers lied and told Truong that the medical examiner had determined that her son had been smothered to death. Truong then falsely confessed and spent three years in prison waiting for her trial. A judge later deemed Truong’s confession inadmissible in court, and Truong was subsequently acquitted.

While adult suspects also give false confessions, minors are two to three times more likely to admit to crimes that they did not commit. According to Laura Nirider, director of the Center on Wrongful Confessions of Youth at Northwestern University’s Law School, the techniques that interrogators implement are intended for seasoned adult criminals and can too often lead to false confessions when used on minors.

Truong’s case is just one example of how dangerous using deception while interrogating minors can be. Martin Tankleff was interrogated for the murder of his mother and attempted murder of his father in 1988. During the interrogation, one officer told Tankleff that his father was at the hospital and had regained consciousness, implicating Tankleff as the perpetrator. This was a lie, as Tankleff’s father had actually died without ever awakening. However, Tankleff, who trusted his father, proposed a theory as to how he could have committed the crime without remembering, that he blacked out when killing his mother. Though Tankleff did not sign a written confession, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison and was released only after several pleas for a reinvestigation. Tankleff had already served 17 years of his sentence by the time he was exonerated.

On July 14, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed a bill that forbade investigators from lying to minors during criminal interrogations. The next day, Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker signed a similar bill. Now, other states, including New York, are considering implementing this change as well. This new rule stems from the concern that allowing investigators to lie to underage suspects could lead the suspects to confess to crimes that they did not commit.

It is not only deception that contributes to false confessions, though. Often, interrogations are thoroughly planned, even down to the room’s seating arrangement. This is all done to psychologically overwhelm suspects and make them more likely to confess. The officers conducting Truong’s interrogation used the Reid Technique, which employs several strategies, including minimization. This is when officers pretend to empathize with the suspect and downplay the severity of the crime and the consequences the suspect would face if they admitted guilt. This can coax suspects into giving a false confession to get out of their situation. During Truong’s interrogation, officers told her that her young age and dysfunctional family justified her crime, and if she confessed to killing her son, her brothers would be placed with a new family and she would face minimal punishment.

The two officers interrogating Truong also took on the roles of a good cop and a bad cop, which is a method separate from the Reid Technique. For this strategy, one interrogator is aggressive while the second is sympathetic toward the suspect. The interrogators take turns questioning, and the emotional roller coaster the suspect subsequently goes through wears them down mentally to the point where they confess to something they haven’t done. These psychological tactics put even more strain on the suspect when the victims were close to the suspect, as was the case for Truong and Tankleff.

Though notorious for its susceptibility to produce false confessions, the Reid Technique remains standard practice in the United States. The Reid company, which offers interrogation training, argues that it is only when law enforcement misuses the technique that the risk of false confessions arises. The company claims that as long as interrogators refrain from promising certain consequences or leniency, denying a suspect their rights, interrogating suspects for extremely long periods of time, or engaging in other improper practices, the Reid Technique is safe. Regardless of whether the Reid Technique or the interrogators using it invoke false confessions, the fallibility of the practice needs to be addressed, as false confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.

Potential solutions to this dilemma may lie in technology, but few interrogations use instruments beyond polygraphs. Polygraphs, also known as lie detector tests, measure the physiological responses of a suspect, including heart rate, blood pressure, and perspiration. These physical reactions are not always accurate indicators of dishonesty, however, and polygraph tests are therefore inadmissible in court. Other technologies similar to electroencephalogram machines may be able to more accurately determine a suspect’s guilt or innocence. These technologies measure a suspect’s brain waves as the suspect responds to images or other stimuli related to the crime scene. If the suspect recognizes a weapon found at the crime scene, for example, their brain is most likely to produce more activity in response to the image than it would in response to an image of a weapon that the suspect has no connection to.

The same techniques that push suspects to falsely confess also prove successful in extracting confessions from guilty suspects. So, as with other decisions in the justice system, choosing which psychological tactics are permitted in interrogation rooms is not simple. In the 2018 high-profile case of Chris Watts, for example, interrogators pretended to be understanding of Watts as they probed him for possible motives as to why he would have murdered his pregnant wife and two young daughters. One of the interrogators suggested that Watts’ wife, Shannan, had been too controlling and had thus ruined their marriage. The interrogators also implemented Step Seven of the Reid Technique of presenting an alternative question. Interrogators proposed that Shannan had murdered the couple’s daughters and Watts had then killed Shannan out of rage. Watts then admitted to killing Shannan and was placed under arrest. Watts was later convicted of five counts of first-degree murder, three counts of tampering with a deceased body, and a count of first-degree unlawful termination of a pregnancy, and will spend the remainder of his life in prison.

For each successful interrogation that uses the Reid Technique and other controversial strategies, there may also be one that has landed an innocent person in prison. Eliminating deception is only the first step in minimizing wrongful convictions, and maintaining the efficacy of interrogation techniques is important when considering reform. Using the increasingly advanced technology at our disposal may be a major step in determining guilt and innocence with more certainty, but even those techniques should be regarded with a degree of caution.