False Confessions Not Hard to Get, Says Expert

ByABC News
March 29, 2006, 8:03 PM

March 30, 2006 — -- Most of us can't imagine confessing to a crime we didn't commit, but experts say it's easier than you might think to get someone to crack under pressure.

Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at Williams College, says that obtaining a false confession often depends on two factors: an authority figure insisting on guilt and then lying to suspects about false evidence connecting them to a crime.

"If you look at proven false confessions, in almost every one of the cases you find there was a presentation of false evidence either by falsely claiming to the suspect that he failed a lie detector test, or that the victim's grasp had his hair in it," Kassin said.

With Kassin's help, "Primetime" designed a hidden camera test to see if manufactured evidence would increase the confession rate among college students.

The lab was set up to look like many interrogation rooms -- small, cramped, stark walls, no windows, unpleasant and hot.

The college freshman recruited for the test believed they were being tested on how fast they could type. To increase stress, a metronome was set up nearby, ticking at a fairly rapid pace.

Ben, the instructor, told the students there was just one thing they could not do. "Whatever you do, don't hit the alt key because there's a glitch in the program and we're trying to get it fixed but for now it could really mess up the program," Ben told them.

But that wasn't true at all. Ben and his accomplice, Stacey, who posed as another student, tried to see if the unwitting subjects would confess to hitting the key, even when they hadn't.

When one student in the test, Quinn, was told he'd hit the alt key, his denial was tentative.

"Wait a minute, did you just hit the alt key?" Ben asked.

"I don't think so," Quinn said. Then appearing worried, he asked, "You lost everything or just this?"

First the instructor, an authority figure to a student, told Quinn he'd done something wrong. Then to test the second part of Kassin's theory, Stacey lied by saying she saw Quinn hit the key, thereby supplying the false evidence.