As unbelievable as it may sound, new research suggests that suspects in police investigations can be questioned in ways that make them falsely believe they committed a crime of which they are in fact innocent. The research provides lab-based evidence by showing that a selected few adult participants can be persuaded into believing that they had committed a serious crime in their teenage years.
Conducted by two UK-based psychology scholars, Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter, the research was published last year in the Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Its findings indicate that the participants internalized the stories they were told and what’s more, provided rich and detailed descriptions of events that never actually took place.
The researchers selected a total of 60 students who had never never been involved in any crimes. They were brought to the lab for three 40-minute interviews that took place about a week apart.
In the first interview, the researchers told each student about two events he or she had experienced as a teen, only one of which actually happened. The false event was either about a crime that resulted in police contact or a personal injury (such as being attacked by a dog). The important thing was that each false story included some true details about the student’s past.
In the second and third interviews, the researchers questioned the students, asking them to recall as much as they could about both events they were told about in the first interview.
The findings were beyond surprising. Out of the 30 participants who were told they had committed a crime as a teenager, 21 (71%) developed a false memory of the crime; of the 20 who were told about an assault of some kind (with or without a weapon), 11 reported elaborate false memory details of their exact dealings with the police. A similar proportion of students (76.67%) formed false memories of the emotional event they were told about.
Shaw and Porter, the authors of the study, believe that incorporating true details from the student’s life was the key to make them assume false memories of crimes they were actually innocent of. “In such circumstances, inherently fallible and reconstructive memory processes can quite readily generate false recollections with astonishing realism,” says Shaw.
The researchers concluded that by investigating the specific interview tactics which contribute to false memories, interviewing procedures can be improved and the risk of inducing false memories minimized.