False Confessions: How Can Psychology So Basic Be So Counterintuitive?

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Abstract

Recent advances in DNA technology have shined a spotlight on thousands of innocent people wrongfully convicted for crimes they did not commit—many of whom had been induced to confess. The scientific study of false confessions, which helps to explain this phenomenon, has proved highly paradoxical. On the one hand, it is rooted in reliable core principles of psychology (e.g., research on reinforcement and decision-making, obedience to authority, and confirmation biases). On the other hand, false confessions are highly counterintuitive if not inconceivable to most people (e.g., as seen in actual trial outcomes as well as studies of jury decision making). This article describes both the psychology underlying false confessions and the psychology that predicts the counterintuitive nature of this same phenomenon. It then notes that precisely because they are so counterintuitive, false confessions are often “invisible,” resulting in a form of inattentional blindness, and are slow to change in the face of contradiction, illustrating belief perseverance. This article concludes by suggesting ways in which psychologists can help to prevent future miscarriages of justice by advocating for reforms to policy and practice and helping to raise public awareness.

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