Why would people confess to crimes they didn't commit?

Prisoner advocacy group The Innocence Project has used DNA to overturn the wrongful convictions of 266 people since 1989. In twenty-five percent of those cases, the DNA exoneration was an extreme surprise - not because the people had been convicted, but because they had confessed. Why would anyone do that if they were innocent?

Certainly people confess under torture, or if they are mentally incapable of understanding the situation. But sometimes mentally capable suspects who were not physically mistreated still confess to crimes they didn't commit. Because it doesn't make rational sense of them to lie about their guilt, their behavior lends weight to their confessions and makes it harder for them to prove their innocence later. Now Iowa State University researchers are trying to understand what causes these false admissions of guilt.

Photo by Glenn R. McGloughlin/Shutterstock

They conducted a set of experiments in which they asked people about their past behaviors. The questions covered behavior that was criminal and behavior that was merely unethical. The answers to the sets of questions carried consequences, both immediate and distant. In the first experiment, some answers would result in the subject being taken to a room and asked a long series of repetitive questions. Some would involve meeting with a police officer in a few weeks. As little as most people would like to talk to the cops about their criminal behavior, the answers were skewed to avoid the short-term consequences.

In the second experiment - with a new set of people - the chronology of the consequences was reversed. Meet with the cops now, or come back in a few weeks to answer a long set of questions. The participants chose answers that meant they would have to come back in a few weeks and answer a tedious list of questions about an uncomfortable subject, as long as they could get out of meeting with the police officer in the next few minutes.

It's not surprising that people choose short-term gains over long-term safety, but this is not as simple as choosing to get to work on time rather than have a good breakfast. People, asked the same questions, chose to confess to illegal or immoral things in order to get out of a short-term situation. It's possible that many of the subjects had no intention of returning for a long set of questions, but would have found it difficult to slip out of the immediate situation. Even if the interview subjects had no intention of returning, the study may still reflect the outlook of a person being questioned. Interrogation is frightening. Confessing to something so they can go free immediately may sound better than toughing it out - especially if the suspect believes that they will ultimately be exonerated in a trial. After all, how could they not be exonerated? They're innocent.

Via Iowa State University.