Police interrogation techniques generate false memories of committing crimes


Psychologists terminated a study that showed the ease of implanting false memories of committing terrible, violent crimes in the recent past in their subjects -- the experiment was terminated because some subjects couldn't be convinced that they hadn't committed the crime after they were told the truth.

The techniques used by the psychologists were a lot less manipulative and stressful than those routinely deployed by police interrogators who are anxious to secure confessions. It's a disturbing result that calls into question decades of guilty pleas all over the world.

Researchers questioned the students for three sessions of about 40 minutes each. They asked them to recall two events in their past: the true event and an added false one, both of which they said the caregivers had told them about. The false event was described in as general terms as possible — simply “an assault” or “an incident where you were in contact with the police.”

If subjects said they couldn’t remember the false event, questioners reassured them they would be able to retrieve their “lost memories” if they tried hard enough. If they began to “remember,” experimenters asked for more detail. Do you recall any images? How did you feel? Visualize what it might have been like, they said, and the memory will come back to you.

By the end of the third interview, more than 70 per cent of subjects came to believe they had committed a crime just five or so years in the past. They didn’t merely agree they had done what the experimenters suggested — they generated all the details of the crime themselves, recalling vivid sensory memories and often becoming emotional and guilt-ridden.

Some subjects persisted in believing they were guilty after they had been told the “crime” had been invented. “A few people argued with the experimenter and said, ‘Well no, I know this happened,’ ” says Porter.

Planting false memories fairly easy, psychologists find [Sarah Barmak/Toronto Star]

(Thanks, Cliff Goldstein!)