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Psychological Processes Underlying True
and False Confessions
Kate A. Houston, Christian A. Meissner and Jacqueline R. Evans
Chris Ochoa was told he would receive the death penalty for the crimes of which he
was accused, but that if he confessed he would live. Eleven and a half years later,
DNA testing exonerated Ochoa of any connection to the crimes for which he was
imprisoned. Keith Brown was charged with the sexual assault of a woman and her
9-year-old daughter after falsely confessing due to high levels of pressure exerted by
investigators. Brown served 4 years of a 35 -year sentence before he was exonerated
via DNA testing. Finally, Nathaniel Hatchett falsely confessed to rape and robbery,
serving 10 years in prison before he was exonerated due to DNA testing. Nathaniel
was told that if he cooperated (and confessed) he would be allowed to go home.
Chris Ochoa, Keith Brown, Nathaniel Hatchett; these three men are but a sample of
the growing problem of false confessions within the legal system and together they
served 25.5 years in prison as innocent men (The Innocence Project 2010).
There is a substantial need to determine the mechanisms under which an individual
may be enticed to falsely confess to a crime that he or she did not commit. In
an effort to address these questions, previous research has investigated a variety
of situational and dispositional factors under which a false confession may occur.
For example, research has demonstrated that certain police interrogation techniques
have the potential to elicit false confessions (Meissner et al. 2012), and that being
innocent can actually place interviewees at risk in interrogation settings (Kassin
2005). Furthermore, it has been shown that certain individual difference factors
K. A. Houston ()
University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas, USA
C. A. Meissner
Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, USA
J. R. Evans
Florida International University, Miami, Florida, USA
R. Bull (ed.), Investigative Interviewing, DOI 10.1007/978-1-4614-9642-7_2, 19
© Springer Science+Business Media NewYork 2014
20 K. A. Houston et al.
such as adolescence or mental retardation may place interviewees at risk for false
confessions (Drizin and Leo 2004; Owen-Kostelnik et al. 2006). There are many
excellent reviews of the false confession literature (e.g., Drizen and Leo 2004; Kassin
et al. 2010; Lassiter and Meissner 2010; Leo 2008), and we encourage interested
readers to access these for further details. To date, many of the recommendations for
preventing falseconfessions in theUSA have focusedon identifying anddiscouraging
interrogation approaches that may lead to false confessions, and advocate for the
requirement of videotaping interrogations to provide courts with an objective record
of the approaches used.
Over the past few years, researchers have also called for a more positive approach
where the aim is to offer scientiﬁcally based techniques that might improve the
diagnostic value of confessions (e.g., Evans et al. 2012; Meissner et al. 2010a). To
this end, our laboratory has conducted a number of studies designed to assess the
effectiveness of various interrogative approaches on confession likelihood (Horgan
et al. 2012; Narchet et al. 2011; Russano et al. 2005a). These experimental studies
used a paradigm designed to model the psychological processes experienced by
a suspect (Russano et al. 2005a), and aimed to identify interrogative approaches
that would elicit the greatest likelihood of true confessions from guilty individuals
while limiting the likelihood of false confessions from innocent individuals. Further,
our research has sought to better understand the psychological processes that might
distinguish true and false confessions. Various psychological or decision-making
models have been proposed to account for the role of social, cognitive, and affective
factors in confession provision; however, little empirical data have been generated to
assess the validity of the proposed theories or their relation to current interrogative
practices (cf. Madon et al. 2013; Narchet et al. 2011).
The current chapter will provide a brief review of the relevant theoretical ap-
proaches to understanding confessions and describe the variety of internal and
external pressures that individuals may experience in the interrogation process. We
consider decision-making approaches that focus on the consequences of confession
as a key motivator (Hilgendorf and Irving 1981), as well as the role of emotional
or affective responses resulting from the interrogative process (Jayne 1986; Madon
et al. 2013). We also assess the potential inﬂuence of internal experiences of guilt,
remorse, and accountability, which may lead a suspect towards a “need to confess”
(Berggren 1975; Reik 1959), and the inﬂuence of external social pressures to com-
ply with the demands of an interrogator (Davis and O’Donohue 2004). Finally, we
discuss the framework offered by Gudjonsson (2003) that brings together these and
other motivational factors.
After considering the various theoretical accounts of confession, we discuss ﬁeld
studies that have begun to assess key psychological motivators for providing true
versus false confessions (Sigursdon and Gudjonsson 1996; Redlich et al. 2011). We
then present a meta-analysis of the various social, cognitive, and affective factors
leading to confession across six experimental laboratory studies we have conducted
using the Russano et al. (2005a) paradigm, contrasting our laboratory ﬁndings with
those of prior studies. We synthesize this research by proposing a process model,
highlighting key differences in the psychological states that may lead to true and false
2 Psychological Processes Underlying True and False Confessions 21
confessions. Our thesis is that true and false confessions may be distinguished by
several key psychological factors, and that an understanding of such factors can lead
to the development of diagnostic interrogative approaches. Speciﬁcally, we propose
that guilty individuals can be driven to confess based upon their perceptions of the
evidence against them and certain internalized feelings of guilt, accountability, and
responsibility for their actions. In contrast, we propose that false confessions are
driven by innocent suspects’perceptions of the potential consequences of confessing
and the social pressures placed upon them to comply with an interrogator’s request
for a confession.
Research on True and False Confessions
The false confession phenomenon has generally been studied in two domains: in the
ﬁeld via either observations of law enforcement interrogations or surveys of con-
victed felons, or in the laboratory. Both ﬁeld and laboratory work have advantages
and drawbacks (Meissner et al. 2010b). Field research, while high in external validity
(the degree to which the parameters of a study correspond to the relevant context)
has a weakness in the lack of ground truth that would support internal validity of
the ﬁndings. Without knowledge of whether a suspect is factually innocent or guilty,
or whether the prisoner who claims to have made a false confession actually did
so (see Gudjonsson 2010), ﬁndings from the ﬁeld will always require some form
of validation in alternative contexts. The advantage of conducting experimental re-
search in the laboratory, in contrast, is principally high internal validity resulting
from control over the study context and knowledge of ground truth (Meissner et al.
2010b). Experimental laboratory research, however, generally lacks external valid-
ity, and researchers must seek to induce some degree of psychological realism in
the laboratory if they wish to generalize their ﬁndings. Ultimately, the absence of
a perfect scientiﬁc methodology leads researchers to seek convergent validity from
ﬁndings across multiple contexts and approaches.
The classic experimental paradigm used to study false confessions was pioneered
by Kassin and Keichel (1996) in their well-known “ALT-key paradigm”. In this
novel experiment, Kassin and Keichel asked college students to complete a typing
task in pairs. Unbeknownst to the participant who was given the role of the typist,
the other participant, whose role it was to read out a list of letters, was a confederate
to the experiment. The researchers explained that due to a glitch in the computer
program participants should refrain from pressing the ALT key during the task, as
doing so would crash the computer and could lead to the loss of all data. Although
none of the students hit the ALT key, the computer would always crash during the
experimental session and the typist would subsequently be accused of pressing the
ALT key. For half of the participants in this study, the confederate would claim to
have seen the typist press the ALT key just before the computer crashed, while for
the remaining half the confederate would claim not to have seen anything relevant.
Following several direct accusations made by the researcher, participants were asked
to sign a piece of paper stating that they were responsible for pressing the ALT key
and causing the computer to crash. An overwhelming 69 % of participants signed
22 K. A. Houston et al.
this “false confession” statement. Furthermore, participants were signiﬁcantly more
likely to provide a false confession when the interrogation technique of the other
participant presenting false incriminating evidence was used.
Within the experimental literature, there have been numerous replications of the
Kassin and Keichel (1996) paradigm and ﬁndings. For example, researchers have
demonstrated that when confronted with false evidence of the misdeed, by way of
a “witness”, participants will sign a false confession even when doing so results in
a ﬁnancial penalty or having to return to the laboratory for 10 hours (Horselenberg
et al. 2006; Redlich and Goodman 2003). Redlich and Goodman (2003) also found
that younger participants were more likely to sign a false confession for pressing
the ALT key. Klaver et al. (2008), on the other hand, investigated whether cultural
and personality differences may inﬂuence the likelihood of a false confession. They
found that having a compliant personality signiﬁcantly increased the risk of false
confession, as did the use of minimization interrogation techniques. Although Kassin
and Keichel’s ALT-key paradigm has been highly successful at allowing researchers
to understand the false confession phenomenon, it also has certain limitations. For
example, all of the participants are factually innocent—that is, none have pressed the
ALT key, accidently or otherwise. Thus, the paradigm can only provide an assessment
of factors that lead innocent (but not guilty) participants to provide a confession (e.g.,
Schacter 2003). Further, while the “crime” in the Kassin and Keichel paradigm is
highly plausible—it is easy to imagine that one may accidentally have pressed the
ALT key—it lacks ecological validity in that crimes are generally committed with
both volition and a memory trace for the act (with the possible exception of cases
involving psychological illness and/or pathology).
To address these shortcomings, Russano et al. (2005a) created a new experimen-
tal procedure for studying interrogations. They attempted to navigate the ethical
challenges involved in studying confessions in the laboratory while preserving high
psychological realism and successfully transposing key psychological processes be-
lieved to operate in the decision to confess. In their “cheating paradigm”, they had
participants enter the laboratory believing they were taking part in a study assessing
the problem solving performance of individuals and teams. To that end, they and
a partner would each complete a series of problems: for some of these problems,
they would work together to reach an answer, while for the remaining problems,
they would work individually and not seek assistance from their partner. The second
participant in this paradigm, however, was a confederate who would either ask the
(real) participant for the answer to one of the individual questions (guilty condition)
or simply complete the problems on their own without asking for help (innocent con-
dition). Upon completing the problem-solving tasks, the experimenter would reenter
the room to collect and evaluate their responses. In each case, however, when the
experimenter reentered the room he/she would claim that a problem occurred such
that he/she needed to speak with each of the participants separately. Following a
brief delay, in which the participant is isolated, the experimenter rejoins the par-
ticipant and begins an interrogative process that accuses the participant of sharing
answers and breaking the rules of the experiment. In their initial study, Russano
et al. assessed the inﬂuence of direct offers of leniency (a “deal”) and implications
of leniency (minimization).
2 Psychological Processes Underlying True and False Confessions 23
It is important to note that half of the participants were factually guilty of sharing
answers and half were not, therefore, the Russano et al. paradigm afforded the ﬁrst
opportunity to assess the underlying mechanisms of true and false confessions from
the same sample. In this way, this paradigm investigated the diagnosticity of con-
fession evidence gained under different interrogation techniques. When participants
were offered both the deal and the minimization tactics, 87 % of those who were
guilty truthfully confessed and 43 % of those who were innocent falsely confessed
(Russano et al. 2005a). When comparing these ﬁndings to the condition where no
deal and no minimization techniques were used, truthful confessions drop from 87 to
46 % and only 6 % of innocent participants falsely confessed (Russano et al. 2005a).
Further iterations of the Russano et al. paradigm within our laboratory have eval-
uated a number of other aspects relating to the interrogative context. For example,
Narchet et al. (2011) examined the inﬂuence of investigator biases on the likelihood
of false-confession provision, ﬁnding that investigators who believed the participant
to be guilty, employed more aggressive and manipulative tactics than the interview-
ers who believed the participant to be innocent, which was associated with a higher
likelihood of false confessions from innocent participants. Horgan et al. (2012) in-
vestigated perceptions of the inﬂuence that certain interrogation techniques have on
confession likelihood, ﬁnding that while participants were able to recognize that
certain interrogation techniques were designed to manipulate individuals into con-
fessing, they were not able to recognize that the techniques would increase their
own false confession likelihood. Horgan et al. (2012) also found that manipulating
the consequences of confessing signiﬁcantly increased the likelihood of an innocent
participant falsely confessing and signiﬁcantly reduced the likelihood of a guilty
participant confessing. Finally, Meissner, Russano, Rigoni, and Horgan (2011) con-
ducted two experiments to compare the diagnosticity of confession evidence gained
either via accusatorial interrogation techniques (which involve a combination of min-
imization and maximization approaches to interrogation), or information-gathering
approaches (which involve a rapport-based approach to interrogation utilizing pos-
itive confrontation and elicitation strategies). Meissner et al. (2011) found that
the diagnosticity of confession evidence was highest in the information-gathering
conditions—in other words, false confessions were the lowest and true confessions
were the highest when participants were interviewed with information-gathering ap-
proaches (see Meissner et al. 2012). The Russano et al. paradigm has proved useful
for simulating the interrogative context and the generation of true and false confes-
sions in a controlled laboratory setting. As will be discussed below, the paradigm
also affords an opportunity to understand the psychological processes that underlie
decisions to (truthfully or falsely) confess.
Theories of Confession
A variety of theories have been proposed to account for why an individual may
confess (see Gudjonsson 2003). Some theories are based upon internal accountability
models (e.g., Reik 1959) while others take into consideration external situational
24 K. A. Houston et al.
factors that may inﬂuence the decision process of the interviewee (e.g., Gudjonsson
2003; Hilgendorf and Irving 1981). Unfortunately, existing theories generally fail
to distinguish between processes that may lead to true versus false confessions, and
little empirical data have been collected to offer validation or reﬁnement of these
Internal Accountability Models of Confession
Perhaps the ﬁrst and most controversial model of confession, proposed by Reik
(1959), suggests that when one has transgressed against a societal or moral norm, a
deep-seated internal feeling of guilt is experienced. This guilt is believed to lead to
high levels of anxiety and discomfort in transgressors, resulting in their seeking an
authority ﬁgure to whom they can confess, thereby alleviating the guilt (Gudjonsson
2003). This theory is based in part on the work of Freud (1916), and suggests a
nonconscious motivation may be responsible for seeking resolution of the guilt and
anxiety that is experienced. Although the model has been viewed as controversial,
there is good reason to believe that internal accountability mechanisms may underlie
truthful confessions from guilty individuals. For example, Horgan et al. (2012),
Narchet et al. (2011), Redlich et al. (2011), and Sigurdsson and Gudjonsson (1996),
have all found evidence, either in the laboratory or in the ﬁeld, for the role of guilt
or remorse in the provision of a true confession.
Decision-Making Models of Confession
Decision-making models, such as that proposed by Hilgendorf and Irving (1981),
argue that interviewees calculate a cost-beneﬁt ratio when determining whether or
not to confess. In an interrogation context, suspects are believed to consider the pos-
sible courses of action currently available to them, the proximate and distal beneﬁts
and costs associated with such actions, and the probabilities associated with such
beneﬁts and costs. With this information, suspects could determine the utility of each
action and generate a confession decision based upon this information, selecting the
action that leads to highest levels of gains or utility value (Gudjonsson 2003). It is
important to note here, however, that the weights assigned to this assessment involve
the suspect’s subjective perception of the situation—a perception that can be ma-
nipulated by an interrogator to increase the likelihood of a decision to confess. For
instance, if the interviewee determines that confessing may increase the likelihood
that he/she will not be prosecuted for the act, while not confessing would result in
further investigation and prosecution, then a decision to confess may be more likely.
Psychological manipulation of a suspect’s perception of the evidence or the con-
sequences associated with confession has been shown to inﬂuence the decision to
confess in both guilty and innocent suspects (e.g., Horgan et al. 2012; Horselenberg
et al. 2006; Russano et al. 2005a).
2 Psychological Processes Underlying True and False Confessions 25
The Use of Anxiety and Social Pressure to Elicit a Confession
The desire to escape and/or terminate an uncomfortable situation is one that is played
upon by some interrogation models (see Ofshe and Leo 1997 for a categorization
of false confessions obtained via social pressure as stress compliant; see also Davis
and O’Donohue 2004; Jayne 1986). One of the ﬁrst to argue that stress and anxiety
play a role in interrogation was Jayne (1986), who noted that anxiety and negative
emotional states during interrogation are experienced by suspects when they are de-
ceptive about their guilt. To that end, Jayne (1986) argued that any anxiety a suspect
experiences should be increased by the interrogation tactics in order to increase the
discomfort of being deceptive. A suspect’s decision to confess is then associated
with a reduction in the experience of negative emotions, such as anxiety and fear.
Accusatorial approaches to interrogation rely upon this theory, often seeking to in-
duce social pressure (and therein perceived anxiety) through repeated accusations of
guilt and maximization of the perceived evidence against the suspect. While such
approaches may lead to the elicitation of true confessions from some guilty individ-
uals, a growing body of research suggests that such tactics may also induce false
confessions from the innocent (see Meissner et al. 2012).
It may be useful to pause here and note an important distinction between models
of anxiety and social pressure and models of internal accountability. While they may
appear similar, adistinguishing characteristic involvesthe sourceof thepsychological
experience. Internal accountability models posit that guilty individuals will naturally
experience feelings of remorse, guilt, and accountability for the misdeed; in contrast,
anxiety and social pressure models suggest that interrogation tactics must be applied
to induce stress and anxiety on the part of the suspect. In this way, the role of internal
versus external motivations to confess may offer the potential to distinguish between
the mechanisms leading to true versus false confessions, respectively (see Horgan
et al. 2012; Narchet et al. 2011; Redlich et al. 2011; Sigurdsson and Gudjonsson
Cognitive Behavioral Model
A cognitive behavioral model was proposed by Gudjonsson (2003), which incorpo-
rates many of the theoretical perspectives discussed above. This model argues that the
likelihood of confession is best understood as a relationship between the antecedents
and consequences of providing a confession. For example, an antecedent to confes-
sion could involve social isolation due to conﬁnement, emotional distress, and/or
situational factors such as the presence or absence of a lawyer. Gudjonsson pro-
poses that suspects will consider both the short-term and long-term consequences of
such antecedents to inform their decision to confess. Consistent with other decision-
making accounts (e.g., Hilgendorf and Irving 1981), a suspect’s perceptions of these
factors can be manipulated by the interrogator. The model includes a variety of
psychological, criminological, and situational factors that may lead to confession,
and affords certain predictions regarding factors that increase the likelihood of false
26 K. A. Houston et al.
Theory Testing: Empirical Assessments of True
and False Confessions
Although psychological theories of confession, as described above, have been pro-
posed over the years, little empirical data have been used to validate the psychological
processes suggested as leading to confession. Two surveys of convicted felons,
however, begin to distinguish between the motivations leading to true and false con-
fessions. In the ﬁrst study, Sigurdsson and Gudjonsson (1996) surveyed prisoners in
Iceland using the Gudjonsson Confession Questionnaire (the GCQ) regarding self-
reported motivations for any false confessions they admitted to giving, and compared
these to their current offense, which they reported truthfully confessing to. These au-
thors found that external mechanisms of perceived pressure to confess, intimidation
by the interviewing ofﬁcers, and fear of the consequences of not confessing were
signiﬁcantly higher for interrogations leading to false confessions. Alternatively, true
confessions were more likely to result from internal pressures, such as confessing to
relieve the distress and guilt feelings caused by the crime committed. Redlich et al.
(2011) conducted a similar survey with American prisoners regarding the factors
leading to true and false confessions using a revised form of the GCQ. Consistent
with prior work, Redlich et al. found that when prisoners spoke of their false confes-
sions they cited factors related to external pressures, such as social pressure by the
interrogator to confess, as well as perceived short-term gains in confession (such as
terminating the interrogation), and perceived leniency if they confessed. However,
when these prisoners described interrogations leading to true confessions they were
more likely to cite internal pressures, such as feelings of guilt, as well as perceptions
of the evidence held against them and feelings that their involvement in the crime
would inevitably be revealed.
As mentioned above, the drawback to ﬁeld surveys such as those of Sigurdsson
and Gudjonsson (1996) and Redlich et al. (2011), is that it is impossible to determine
whether the false confessions reported actually occurred (Gudjonsson 2010). Thus, it
is important to seek convergent validity for such ﬁndings by relying upon alternative
methodologies, such as experimental laboratory studies. Over the past decade, our
laboratory has engaged in studies seeking to understand the psychological mecha-
nisms leading to true and false confessions. Since the introduction of the Russano
et al. (2005a) paradigm, we have conducted ﬁve empirical studies assessing factors
that may inﬂuence confessions (Horgan et al. 2012; Meissner et al. 2011; Narchet
et al. 2011; Russano et al. 2005a, b). In addition to manipulating key facets of the
interrogation context, we have also asked participants to complete a questionnaire
that evaluates the psychological basis for their decision to confess (or not). Five
key areas, relating to the theories described previously, have been explored in these
studies, including participants’ perceptions of: affective or anxiety-based responses
to interrogation; the consequences associated with confessing (or not); the strength
of the evidence (or proof) against them; feelings of guilt, shame, responsibility, or
accountability; and the external, social pressures being placed upon them to pro-
vide a confession. Independently, data from these studies appear to support a pattern
2 Psychological Processes Underlying True and False Confessions 27
of ﬁndings similar to that of Sigurdsson and Gudjonsson (1996) and Redlich et al.
(2011). For example, both Narchet et al. (2011) and Horgan et al. (2012) found
evidence suggesting that true confessions were associated with internal motivations
to resolve feelings of guilt, shame, or accountability, while false confessions were
motivated by external, social pressures being placed upon the participants in the
In the next section, we present a meta-analysis assessing the associations between
these ﬁve factors and the likelihood of true and false confessions across all six stud-
ies. Our interest is to determine whether these laboratory studies might replicate
the ﬁndings of prior ﬁeld surveys, involving prisoner samples and whether unique
patterns might emerge that distinguish the motivations associated with true versus
false confessions. Our hypothesis is that, consistent with prior research, external
social pressures will be associated with false confessions while internal motivations
to resolve feelings of guilt, shame, or responsibility will be associated with true
confessions. In contrast, we also expect that both true and false confessors will be
inﬂuenced by their perceptions of the consequences associated with the decision to
confess (or not). Finally, perceptions regarding the strength of evidence or proof
against the participant (suspect) are expected to inﬂuence true confessions. To the
extent that presentation of evidence is manipulated by the interrogator, it is also possi-
ble that innocent participants may rely upon their perceptions of proof in determining
whether or not to provide a false confession.
Meta-Analysis of Psychological Factors Leading
to True and False Confessions
Given the limited empirical data assessing current theories of confession and the need
to evaluate psychological factors that might distinguish true and false confessions,
the current meta-analysis sought to assess the association between key psychological
factors self-reported by participants in our experimental laboratory studies and the
likelihood of confession by innocent and guilty participants.
Sample of Studies. Six experiments from ﬁve empirical studies conducted in our
laboratory were included in this analysis (Horgan et al. 2012; Meissner et al. 2011;
Narchet et al. 2011; Russano et al. 2005a, b). All studies employed the Russano
et al. (2005a) paradigm in which participants were randomly assigned to a guilt or
innocence condition—a total of 555 guilty participants and 519 innocent participants
were included for this analysis. Each of the studies manipulated certain factors rel-
evant to an interrogation, such as the interrogation approaches that were employed
or the knowledge of the experimenter prior to interrogating the participant about the
alleged act of cheating. In each study, participants were provided with a debrieﬁng
28 K. A. Houston et al.
questionnaire assessing various factors that might inﬂuence their decision to confess
(truthfully or falsely). Below we provide a brief description of each study.
Horgan et al. (2012): In this study, the authors explored the use of interrogation
tactics that manipulate a suspect’s perception of the consequences associated with
confessing. Using the Russano et al. (2005a) paradigm, the study found techniques
that psychologically manipulate the perception of consequences were signiﬁcantly
less diagnostic of guilt when compared with approaches that retain an accusatorial
approach but do not inﬂuence participants’ perception of consequences.
Meissner et al. (2011; unpublished manuscript): Across two experiments, the
authors examinedthe use ofinformation gathering and accusatorialmethods using the
Russano et al. (2005a) paradigm. Both experiments observed a consistent advantage
for information-gathering approaches in yielding more diagnostic outcomes.
Narchet et al. (2011): This study assessed the inﬂuence of interrogators’ percep-
tions of the guilt or innocence of the suspect on the likelihood of eliciting true versus
false confessions. Using the Russano et al. (2005a) paradigm, the authors found that
a belief in guilt led interrogators (experimenters) to elicit more false confessions
and to engage in a process of behavioral conﬁrmation. The study also demonstrated
that information-gathering approaches signiﬁcantly reduced the likelihood of false
Russano et al. (2005a): In the ﬁrst study of its kind, the authors engaged partici-
pants in a problem-solving task and manipulated whether participants were induced
to cheat on the task (or not) with a confederate. As mentioned above, participants
were later confronted with the accusation of cheating and were interrogated using
minimization techniques, an explicit deal of leniency, both minimization and a deal,
or neither (the control condition). The ratio of true to false confessions decreased
with the use of accusatorial methods.
Russano et al. (2005b; unpublished manuscript): Using the Russano et al. (2005a)
paradigm, this study assessed the inﬂuence of presenting false evidence to guilty
and innocent participants on the likelihood of eliciting true versus false confes-
sions, respectively. Participants in the false evidence condition were shown a written
confession statement that appeared to have been signed by a second participant (a
confederate to the experiment) prior to being asked to sign their own confession
statement. There was no signiﬁcant effect of the presentation of this false evidence.
Psychological Predictor Variables. Five psychological factors were assessed
across the studies. First, a combination of items relating to the degree of stress,
worry, and anxiety experienced by participants were combined to yield a factor re-
ferred to as affect, reﬂecting participants’ emotional reaction to the interrogation.
Four items related to participants’ perceptions of the consequences of confessing
and not confessing were combined to yield a factor referred to as consequences.Two
items relating to participants’ perceptions regarding the strength of any evidence
against them and proof of their guilt were combined to produce a factor referred
to as evidence. Three items probed participants’ feelings of guilt, remorse, and re-
sponsibility for the alleged act as a product of the interrogation—these items were
combined to yield a factor referred to as guilt. Finally, participants were asked to
2 Psychological Processes Underlying True and False Confessions 29
Table 2.1 Mean weighted effects sizes and 95 % conﬁdence intervals for the association between
psychological factors and the likelihood of false and true confessions
False Confessions-Innocent False Confessions-Innocent
N K r 95%Cl N k r 95%Cl
Affect 371 5 0.046 (−0.058, 0.150) 407 5 0.115
Consequences 371 5 0.139
(0.035, 0.243) 407 5 0.162
Evidence 371 5 0.071 (−0.033, 0.175) 407 5 0.140
Guilt 371 5 0.028 (−0.076, 0.132) 407 5 0.203
Pressure 371 5 0.295
(0.207, 0.382) 555 6 0.064 (−0.021, 0.148)
denotes a signiﬁcant effect
rate the degree of pressure placed upon them by the interrogator and interrogation
context to provide a confession, producing a factor referred to as pressure. Items
varied slightly across studies, though all ﬁve factors were present in ﬁve of the six
experiments assessed here. The original Russano et al. (2005a) study included only
the items relating to pressure.
Estimate of Effect Size and Meta-Analytic Approach. Our primary measure of
effect size was Fisher’s Z
, calculated as a measure of association between each of
the key psychological factors (described above) and the likelihood of true and false
confession, respectively. This effect size was calculated by creating a path model in
each study that controlled the direct and indirect effects of the study manipulations
while also estimating the correlations among the psychological process predictors.
was then calculated based upon the critical ratio test for the direct effect
of each psychological process predictor on true and false confession samples inde-
pendently. Our meta-analysis involved estimating the mean weighted effect size for
each psychological predictor across the sample of experimental laboratory studies
using a ﬁxed effects model (Hedges and Olkin 1985; Johnson et al. 1995). Mean
weighted effects sizes were then back transformed into r coefﬁcients to facilitate
Table 2.1 provides the mean weighted effect sizes and 95 % conﬁdence intervals
calculated for the association between each of the psychological process factors and
the likelihood of true and false confessions, respectively. Positive values indicate
an increased likelihood of confession being associated with an increase in the psy-
chological response. Below we discuss the pattern of ﬁndings for true and false
confessions, and we describe the robustness of the ﬁndings by presenting a fail-safe
N calculation for all signiﬁcant effects.
False Confessions. Across our sample of experimental laboratory studies, false
confessions were associated with participants’ considerations of the consequences
associated with confessing and with their perceptions of the external social pressures
30 K. A. Houston et al.
being placed upon them by the interrogator and the interrogative context. The inﬂu-
ence of consequences was small, accounting for only 2 % of the variance in false
confessions, and appeared potentially unstable with a N
=4. In contrast, the inﬂu-
ence of perceived pressure was rather robust (N
=60) and accounted for nearly 9 %
of the variance in false confessions. The role of external social pressure and percep-
tions of the consequences associated with confession are rather consistent with the
literature on false confessions in general (cf. Gudjonsson and Kassin 2004; Kassin
et al. 2010; Lassiter and Meissner 2010) and with prior surveys regarding psycho-
logical factors associated with false confessions (Redlich et al. 2011; Sigurdsson and
Gudjonsson 1996). The psychological factors of affect, evidence, and guilt proved
nonsigniﬁcant predictors of false confessions across studies.
True Confessions. Much like their innocent counterparts, guilty participants also
showed a signiﬁcant association between consideration of the consequences associ-
ated with confession and the likelihood of providing a true confession. This effect
accounted for nearly 3 % of the variance and appeared somewhat robust (N
given the small sample of studies here. Beyond this effect, however, a distinct pattern
emerged for true confessions suggesting that different psychological mechanisms
may be associated with decisions by guilty compared to innocent participants. Partic-
ipants’emotional responses to the interrogation (affect) were signiﬁcantly associated
with true confessions, though this small effect accounted for only 1 % of the variance
and was quite unstable (N
=1). Although we note that self-report assessments of
affective responses can be problematic, recent research by Guyll et al. (in press)
using physiological data is rather consistent with the role of affect in guilty partic-
ipants. True confessions were also associated with perceptions of the evidence that
may be available to investigators, a small effect accounting for 2 % of the variance
=7. Finally, and most importantly, true confessions were signiﬁcantly as-
sociated with participants’ perceptions of responsibility, remorse, and guilt. This
effect accounted for 4 % of the variance and appeared rather robust (N
Consideration of these factors, particularly the role of evidence and internal psy-
chological motivations, is rather consistent with prior research (Redlich et al. 2011;
Sigurdsson and Gudjonsson 1996) and suggests that certain factors may be useful
for distinguishing true and false confessions.
Discussion: Theory and Application
The present meta-analysis sought to further clarify the underlying psychological
processes that may increase the likelihood of true and false confessions elicited under
the Russano et al. (2005a) paradigm. Using data collected in our laboratory over the
last decade, we aimed to test predictions of the relevant theoretical models and,
more speciﬁcally, the potential role of internal versus external motivations found in
prior ﬁeld surveys by Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson (1996) and Redlich et al. (2011).
Consistent with the prior literature, our meta-analysis suggested that some of the
factors to which guilty and innocent persons attend during interrogation overlap, such
2 Psychological Processes Underlying True and False Confessions 31
as a perception of the consequences of providing a confession. However, consistent
with the surveys of Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson (1996) and Redlich et al. (2011)we
also found that true and false confessions may be distinguished by the inﬂuence of
internal versus external psychological motivations, respectively.
As discussed above, a variety of theories propose to account for the underlying
psychological processes involved in decisions to confess (see Gudjonsson 2003). Al-
though these theories are not mutually exclusive, little empirical data have sought to
assess or validate the various accounts and few studies have proposed an explanatory
framework for distinguishing between true and false confessions. Notwithstanding
the limitations of our experimental laboratory approach, our meta-analytic ﬁndings
provide convergent validity to prior ﬁeld surveys and suggest that different psycho-
logical processes may mediate the decision to provide a true or false confession.
As such, it will be important that theoretical frameworks seeking to explain confes-
sions generated through an interrogative process consider the mechanisms that may
inﬂuence the guilty and innocent, respectively.
Taken together, true confessions appear to be the product of individuals’ feelings
of guilt, remorse, and accountability for the misdeed, providing support to internal
accountability models (Reik 1959). Guilty individuals also appear to consider the
strength of the evidence against them and the potential consequences associated with
confessing (or not)—providing support for decision-making models such as that pro-
posed by Hilgendorf and Irving (1981) and Gudjonsson (2003). To a lesser extent,
our data suggest that affective processes may also play a role in true confessions.
Though we note that self-report data on emotional states can be unreliable, physio-
logical approaches taken by Guyll et al. (in press) may provide a more fruitful line
of inquiry for further validating such processes in guilty versus innocent individuals.
False confessions from the innocent appear to be principally based upon perceived
external social pressures to confess that stem from the interrogation approaches
employed, the persistent accusations, disbelief, and requests for compliance from
the interrogator, or the interrogation context itself. Such ﬁndings provide further
support to our understanding of the factors leading to false confessions (see Kassin
et al. 2010; Lassiter and Meissner 2010; Ofshe and Leo 1997), and to the potentially
detrimental effects of accusatorial approaches to interrogation (Meissner et al. 2012).
Our dataalso suggest that innocentparticipants engage in acost-beneﬁt analysis when
considering the potential consequences associated with providing a confession (or
not).As discussed below, this suggests that interrogators may need to exercisecaution
when psychologically manipulating the consequences associated with confession
(see also Horgan et al. 2012).
Overall, our ﬁndings lend support to the Cognitive Behavioral theory posited
by Gudjonsson (2003), suggesting that the likelihood of confession is motivated
by a relationship between factors, rather than any one factor in isolation. At the
same time, the available empirical data also suggest that Gudjonsson’s model could
be updated to reﬂect further distinctions in the internal and external psychological
factors that may inﬂuence the guilty and innocent, respectively. Further theoretical
and empirical research appears warranted to afford a fuller understanding of the
32 K. A. Houston et al.
psychological and criminological mechanisms associated with confession (see also
St-Yves and Deslauriers-Varin 2009).
While there exists some research on the correlates and causal factors of false
confessions (see Kassin et al. 2010), less is known regarding the psychological
mechanisms by which various interrogation practices exert their inﬂuence on sus-
pect decisions to confess. In the USA, accusatorial interrogation techniques (broadly
construed) seek to directly manipulate the external pressures placed upon the suspect
as well as an individuals’ perceptions of the consequences of complying (confess-
ing) versus resisting the interrogation (Davis and O’Donohue 2004; Lassiter and
Meissner 2010). In general, interrogators assume that by increasing the anxiety and
social pressure placed upon a suspect and manipulating their perceptions of the
likely consequences, individuals will more often comply with a request for confes-
sion/information, than resist (Jayne 1986). Research assessing the efﬁcacy of these
accusatorial techniques, however, suggests that they increase the likelihood of false
confessions (Kassin et al. 2010; Lassiter and Meissner 2010; Meissner et al. 2012;
Ofshe and Leo 1997), a pattern of data consistent with the role of external social pres-
sure being associated with false confessions in the current meta-analysis. Alternative
methods of interviewing, for example information-gathering approaches popular in
countries such as the UK, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand, have proven effec-
tive at gaining truthful and complete accounts from suspects (and witnesses) when
compared to standard US interview protocols (Evans et al. 2013; Meissner et al.
2012). While it is beyond the scope of this chapter to provide a comparative review
of such methods (see Bull and Soukara 2010; Meissner et al. 2012), research in our
laboratory suggests that information-gathering approaches may be effective princi-
pally because they highlight internal psychological mechanisms that promote true
confessions while simultaneously reducing external social pressures associated with
In closing, we propose that a strong theoretical understanding of the psychologi-
cal mechanisms leading to true versus false confessions may offer insights into the
development of interrogative approaches that prove useful for eliciting diagnostic
confession evidence. We believe that such a process of “reverse engineering” could
promote a positive perspective in the development of alternative approaches to in-
terrogation that might replace methods which are detrimental to the collection of
evidence despite their frequent use in certain countries (cf. Meissner et al. 2010a).
Ultimately, we hope that the current discussion will encourage other social and be-
havioral scientists to join us in developing an ethical, evidence-based perspective on
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