False confessions: Fact or fiction?

Written by Dr Wendy Paton, Lecturer in Psychology, Centre of Applied Psychological Sciences, Vulnerabilities and Communication across the Criminal Justice System theme. Email: W.Paton@tees.ac.uk 

Would you ever confess to a crime you had not committed? Take a minute to think about this; although you may not need this long… Did you answer straight away? Did you think about it and change your mind? Or did you stick with your initial response? (which I guess, for many of you, will most likely be “No!” or “Never!”).

If you think you would never make a false confession, you are not alone. Most people say they would never take the blame for a crime someone else committed. Furthermore, they cannot understand why anyone would falsely confess (Keatley et al., 2018). So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea that anyone would ever make a false confession is often met with scepticism. After all, who on earth would do such a thing? Well, contrary to popular belief, many people do take the blame for crimes they did not commit. Consequently, many innocent people have been imprisoned for crimes committed by others.

Still not convinced…? The Innocence Project, founded in America in 1992, is dedicated to the exoneration of wrongfully convicted individuals. To date, DNA testing has resulted in the exoneration of 375 innocent people (The Innocence Project, 2021). False confessions were involved in almost 30% of these exoneration cases. However, you might still be thinking why on earth would anyone falsely confess?

I must admit, until I attended a lecture at Glasgow Caledonian University about false confessions when I was an undergrad, I too was a sceptic. However, an hour or so later, I had completely changed my mind (thank you Dr Stella Bain!). I became fascinated with this topic, which resulted in me completing a PhD examining individual and situational risk factors for false confessions.

So, what is a false confession? Similar to a true confession, a false confession also consists of an admission and a detailed explanation of a crime. You may be surprised to learn that false confessions can also contain accurate information, detailed crime scene descriptions, explanations for committing the crime, and, in some (rare) cases, expressions of remorse. However, in contrast to guilty suspects who have first-hand knowledge of the crime, often innocent suspects have been given crime details from officers during an interrogation (Henderson & Levett, 2020).

Trying to understand why someone would make a false confession is not easy as, from a psychological perspective, false confessions are more complex than true confessions. Kassin and Wrightsman (1985) proposed a theoretical framework which describes three psychologically distinct types of false confession, namely: voluntary, coerced-compliant, and coerced-internalised false confessions.

Voluntary false confessions, as the name suggests, are volunteered by a suspect rather than coerced during an interrogation. One of the most common reasons for making this type of false confession is to protect the true perpetrator (e.g. a family member). However, voluntary false confessions may also be made due to, for example, a need to compensate for guilt experienced over real or imagined crimes, inability to differentiate fact from fiction, and a desire for notoriety (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985). Rarely retracted, voluntary false confessions are often regarded with cynicism and as less credible than police-induced false confessions.

In contrast to voluntary false confessions, coerced-compliant false confessions arise following exposure to coercive interrogation methods (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985). This type of false confession may be made to escape a situation perceived as aversive, to avoid a threat (implicit or explicit), or to gain a promised or implied reward. In this case, the perceived short-term benefits of confessing (e.g. less harsh punishment, being allowed to go home) outweigh the long-term costs of confessing (being imprisoned). Characterised by an admission of guilt, but a private awareness of innocence, this type of false confession is generally retracted after immediate situational pressures are removed.

Coerced-internalised false confessions can also arise due to exposure to coercive tactics. However, in contrast to coerced-compliant false confessions, coerced-internalised false confessions involve a gradually formed belief of guilt. Exposure to persuasive tactics and repeated accusations may cause innocent suspects to start doubting their memory for an event, in turn increasing vulnerability to suggestion and accepting external cues (Kassin & Wrightsman, 1985). If suggestions and cues are internalised, a false memory may develop that temporarily persuades the individual that they committed the crime. While this type of false confession is less common than coerced-compliant false confessions, it does occur. In one case, after being interrogated for hours and (falsely) told he had failed a polygraph test, believing he must have been guilty, Peter Reilly falsely confessed to killing his mother.

While we know that false confessions can result in wrongful conviction, understanding the frequency of false confessions, and the contributing causes of false confessions, can be complicated. For example, contrary to expectations, in my own research, I found that innocent participants were more likely to make false confessions after being interviewed by a friendly rather than a stern interviewer and when the interviewer used non-coercive techniques (Paton et al., 2018).

Compounding the issues discussed in this blog, innocent suspects may also waive their right to silence and/or decline legal representation due to the mistaken belief that innocence will protect them (Scherr et al., 2020). In the words of Peter Reilly, “I hadn’t done anything wrong and I felt that only a criminal really needed an attorney”.  What we do know for certain is that confessions are extremely persuasive to jurors (Kassin, 2015). After all, why would someone confess if they were not guilty…? Thus, a false confession is the most potent type of false evidence against an innocent suspect.

I hope you have found this short introduction to false confessions interesting and I look forward to discussing some of the risk factors for false confessions in more detail in future blogs. Having read about some of the explanations for false confessions, you might like to revisit the question posed at the start of the blog… Would you ever confess to a crime you had not committed?


 Henderson, K. S., & Levett, L. M. (2020). The effects of variations in confession evidence and need for cognition on jurors’ decisions. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law26(3), 245. https://doi.org/10.1037/law0000233

Kassin, S. M. (2015). The social psychology of false confessions. Social Issues and Policy Review, 9, 25–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/sipr.12009

Kassin, S. M., & Wrightsman, L. S. (1985). Confession evidence. In S. M. Kassin & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.) The psychology of evidence and trial procedure (pp. 67-94). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Keatley, D. A., Marono, A., & Clarke, D. D. (2018). Unmaking a murderer: behaviour sequence analysis of false confessions. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law25(3), 425-436. https://doi.org/10.1080/13218719.2018.1463875

Paton, W., Bain, S. A., Gozna, L., Gilchrist, E., Heim, D., Gardner, E., Cairns, D., McGranaghan, P., & Fischer, R. (2018). The combined effects of questioning technique and interviewer manner on false confessions. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling15(3), 335-349. https://doi.org/10.1002/jip.1513

Scherr, K. C., Redlich, A. D., & Kassin, S. M. (2020). Cumulative disadvantage: A psychological framework for understanding how innocence can lead to confession, wrongful conviction, and beyond. Perspectives on Psychological Science15(2), 353-383. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691619896608

The Innocence Project (2021). False confessions and recording of custodial interrogations. https://innocenceproject.org/false-confessions-recording-interrogations/