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22 Aug 2011

People Easily Make False Confessions

When we approach problems too logically and reasonably, we tend to place too much faith in the dominance of consciousness and to discount subjective influences that vary by person. For example, the Innocence Project, by using DNA evidence, has helped to exonerate 271 people wrongly convicted of crimes, but almost a quarter of these people had confessed or pleaded guilty. Why would people give false confessions?

What research shows is that we can easily extract false confessions from others especially when using certain interrogation techniques. The article, “Silence is Golden”, in the August 13, 2011 issue of The Economist mentions two such research projects. The journal, Law and Human Behavior, published one by Saul Kassin and Jennifer Perillo of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York while the other is the work of Robert Horselenberg and colleagues at Maastricht University.

Since we tend to believe in free will and the dominance of consciousness, we consider confessions fairly damning because no one in her “right mind” would give false ones. Therefore, interrogations assume false confessions aren’t possible. Yet, people give them for many reasons including:

  • Avoiding unpleasant interrogations
  • Accepting that they might have accidentally committed a wrong
  • Believing that
    –   Investigative process will show innocence
    –   Authorities and experts know better
    –   Objective truth and justice exist and will surface
    –   Technologically collected evidence is faultless

Many times our business processes assume people behave with a “right mind.” Yet, as this example shows, by questioning this assumption in our processes, interrogations in this case, we automatically call into question the outcomes derived from those processes, here confessions.

Thus, our processes need to account for more subjective, subconscious and intuitive factors or risk disconnection from reality and erroneous analyses.


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