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Would You Confess to a Crime You Did Not Commit?

FMSF News Alert - January 29, 2015

Shaw, J., Porter, S. Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime. Psychological Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614562862

No? Don’t be so sure.

Although there is solid evidence that eye witness accounts of crime may be influenced by after-the-event suggestion and that memory is highly malleable, stunning research published this month in Psychological Science is the first controlled laboratory study to document that innocent people may be led to falsely believe that they have committed a crime.

Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter have demonstrated that 71 percent of people who are exposed to particular interview techniques may develop false memories of committing a crime when they were teenagers. This has profound implications for the legal system.

Researchers Shaw and Porter obtained permission to send questionnaires to the parents or caregivers of 60 undergraduates who participated in the study. The questionnaires asked the parents or caregivers to describe a highly emotional event in detail that the participant had experienced between the ages of 11 and 14. The researchers also determined that none of the subjects had actually been involved in any crime or had other police contact during those years.

Sixty students were then interviewed three times. During the first session, the interviewer presented a true memory of something that had happened to the student, establishing that the interviewer knew something about the person. During the second interview, thirty students were given false information about committing a crime and thirty were given false information about an emotional event such as an attack by a dog or loss of large sum of money. All students were given clues such as their age at the time, the time of year and who else had been involved.

To help make the false information more believable, the interviewers told the students that their parents or caregivers had corroborated these facts. They encouraged the students to use visualization techniques to help uncover the memory. In each of the three interviews, they asked students to provide as many details as possible.

When the students were debriefed, the interviewers told students that that the second memory was false. They asked whether the students really believed the events had happened, and if they truly believed the memory.

Students were classified as having a true false memory if they said they genuinely believed the false memory and if they could give more than ten details for each of the memories.

Seventy-one percent of the students truly believed that they had committed a crime and seventy-seven percent believed they had experienced the emotional false events.

"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," said Julia Shaw in an interview.


If an FMSF member would like to see this paper, email with your request.