False Memories Leading to Confessions

In Dr. Kaku’s Future of the Mind he describes research in which false memories were implanted in animals.  As you will see in this post, there is no need to such physical implantations in humans.

According to the Innocence Project (www.innocentproject.org) eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful conviction nationwide,playing a role in 72% of convictions overturned through DNA  testing.  Yet eyewitness  testimony is regarded as persuasive evidence by judges and juries.  In about 30% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty.  One can make a compelling argument that our legal system falls short on delivering justice.

Also consider individuals who were wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing children, frequently their very own children.  These wrongful convictions were the result of false memories being implanted by psychotherapists of a particular theoretical persuasion.  Understand that these therapists were not intentionally implanting false memories in their patients, but their therapeutic approach caused them to ask questions and make suggestions that resulted in these false memories of childhood sexual abuse.  The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus along with others conducted detailed and extensive research showing how easily false memories could be implanted and believed.  Loftus and others needed to spend many years testifying in court to get these wrongful convictions overturned and to prevent the occurrence of additional wrongful convictions.

Research has revealed that our memories are highly malleable.  We are still learning how malleable they are.  Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter reported their research on this topic in an article titled, “Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime,” in Psychological Science (2015), 1-11.  First, they conducted a screening phase using one hundred twenty-six undergraduate students at a Canadian university.  In the screening phase, the undergraduates provided consent for researchers to send an extensive memory questionnaire to their primary caregivers.  Eligibility  was based on the caregiver reporting that the participant had experienced at least one highly emotional event in the specified time frame, had not experienced  any of the target criminal events (assault, assault with a weapon, and theft), and had never had police contact.  The caregivers had to report in some detail at least one emotional event.  Caregivers were also asked  whether their child had experienced any of six negative emotional events, three of which were criminal (assault, assault with a weapon, and theft) and three of which were noncriminal (an accident, an animal attack, and losing a large amount of money).  For each recalled event , caregivers were asked to write a description of what they could remember, including the location, people present, time of year, age of the participant, and how confident they were that the event had occurred.

Of this sample, 70 students met the participation criteria and the first 60 of these eligible  students participated in the interview stage, which consisted of three interviews  at approximately at one week intervals. The interviews were on average 40 minutes long.  The same researcher, who used a scripted interview for all sessions, conducted all interviews.  In the first interview two of the events from the questionnaire, one that the participant had experienced and one that the participant had not experienced were verbal presented to the participant.  The true event was always presented first to maximize the interviewer’s credibility.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two false-memory conditions.  Participants in the criminal condition were told that they had committed a crime resulting in police contact.  One third of them were told that they had committed assault, another third that they had committed assault with a weapon, and the remainder that they had committed theft.  Participants in the noncriminal  condition were told they they had experienced an emotional event:  one third were told that they had had a powerful emotional experience during which they injured themselves, another third that they had been attacked by a dog, and the remainder  that they had lost a large sum of money and gotten in trouble with their parents.  The events themselves were not of particular interest, and were used in the interest of increasing generalizability.

During the interviews, the interviewer provided details.  No participant immediately recalled  the false event.  When participants had difficulty recalling the false event, the interviewer encouraged them to try to remember it, and (falsely) told them that most people  can remember these kinds of memories if they try hard enough.  Participants were told that the study  was an examination of memory retrieval methods, and they were asked  to use context reinstatement and guided imagery to retrieve the memory.  They were also told to practice visualization of the false event each night at home.  The strategies that were employed throughout the interviews were based on literature regarding the factors that facilitate the generation of false confessions.  For example, incontrovertible false evidence (the questionnaire your parents/caregivers provided said…), social pressure  (“Most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough), plus the suggested retrieval and imaging techniques).  The interview also worked at building good rapport with the interviewee.

These basic procedures were employed again in the second and third interviews held one week apart.  At the end of these interview the participants were asked some addition questions by the researchers, were informed about the  false memories and the purposes of the research.  One of the questions they were asked was whether they believed the false memory.  Their responses were further broken down by the number of details.  Of the 50 participants who reported 10 or more details, 44 believed that the false memory was true and 6 did not  believe that the false memory was true.  Of these the researchers concluded that there were 44 true false memories and that 6 of the respondents were what they termed “compliant.” That is they tried hard, but did not produce false memories.  Of the respondents who reported less than 10 details, 6 reported that they believed the event occurred but the researchers classified them as accepting, but not believing that a false memory had really been produced.

Of the participants assigned to the criminal condition 21 (70%) were classified as having false memories of being involved in the criminal event  resulting in police contact.  Of those 21, 8 provided an account involving the assaulting another person, 6 provided an account involving a theft, and 7 provided an account involve  assaulting another person with a weapon.  Although type of crime was not of interest, it did not appear to be a significant variable.

Of the participants given noncriminal false memories, 23 (76.67%) were classified as having false memories.  Of those 23, 8 provided an account involving an animal attack, 8 provided an account involving an accident resulting in injury, and 8 providing an account involving losing a large amount of money.  Again, these numbers did not differ significantly, nor did the differences between criminal and noncriminal false memories.

Clearly, interviews of suspects, and I would argue witnesses, needed to be conducted carefully or the justice system might again be led astray.  I would further argue that all pretrial testimony should be videotaped and available for review.

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