The social psychology of false confession deals with the concepts of obedience to authorities in relation to the famous Milgram Experiment while covering the other aspects through case studies. 


In the previous article Memories of crime that never took place: false confessions, it was demonstrated that false memories of crime can be stirred in the minds of the innocent. This eventually leads to false confessions through controlled experimental environment. A step further into the subject, false confessions also have a socio-psychological explanation. The Innocence Project which has used DNA evidence to exonerate hundreds of people who have been wrongfully convicted, reports that false confessions were a factor in 29% of these cases.

Prison gates and shadow

Types of false confessions: A brief overview

1. Persuaded false confession: Police may use interrogation tactics that cause an individual to doubt their own memory and may lead them to believe that they did commit the crime even when it might not be the case.

2. Compliant false confession: If police use stress, pressure or coercion and the suspect desperately wants to escape from a painful interrogation process, they may confess whether they are guilty or not.

3. Voluntary false confession: It occurs when the suspect has an underlying mental or psychological condition that distorts reality. The individual may want fame, absolution from guilt over imagined acts, have a desperate need for self-punishment or the inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. These confessions are generally distrustful.

The social psychology of false confession

Police interrogations

Innocence as a mental state can have non intuitive effects on a suspect’s response to various interrogation tactics. In a series of experiments conducted by Perillo and Kassin (2011) examined the relatively bluff technique by which the interrogators pretend to have evidence without any further claims. The theory underlying bluff is simple: Fearing the evidence to be processed, perpetrators will succumb to pressure and confess. Without fear of the alleged evidence, the innocent will not fall into pressure and confess. Yet, the results showed that the innocent were substantially more likely to confess.

In the landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona (1996), the U.S. Supreme Court described custodial police interrogation as “inherently coercive” and ruled that police must inform suspects in custody of their constitutional rights to silence and to counsel. Only if suspects waive these rights “voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently,” said the Court, can the statements they produce be admitted into evidence. Although Miranda is presumed to have provided a safeguard to the innocent suspects, its benefits are unclear. For instance, young adolescents and mentally retarded will have problem with comprehension of their rights and the understanding of its application to their benefit. It is noted that the suspects harbour the misconception that invoking Miranda will prove ineffective and lead the police and others to infer guilt.

It appears that Miranda warnings do not adequately protect the citizens who need it the most-those accused of crimes they did not commit.

Case study: Huwe Burton

On January 3, 1989, a 16 year old young Huwe Burton comes home from school to find his mother Keziah Burton stabbed to death. The techniques of interrogation included, isolating him from his father, threatening with additional criminal charges and offering leniency if he confessed to killing his mother.

Traumatised and sleep-deprived, Mr. Burton was interrogated until police coerced a written and recorded confession stating that he accidentally killed his mother over money to pay a drug debt. He told the detectives that in order to pay it, he had given the dealer his mother’s car which was missing when Ms. Burton’s body was found.

Five days after the detectives obtained Mr. Burton’s confession, police arrested Emanuel Green – the Burton’s downstairs tenant – after discovering he had been driving Ms. Burton’s car. According to the statements, Mr. Green said he had also told Mr. Burton to dispose of the murder weapon and had promised to sell the family car and split the profits. Mr. Green was killed before Mr. Burton’s trial and never testified.

At trial, Mr. Burton maintained his innocence, testifying that the officers had coerced his false confession and argued that Mr. Green was, in fact, the man who had killed his mother. His defense attorney attempted to call an expert to testify on the unreliability of his confession, but the court denied his request.

Mr. Burton was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. He subsequently spent 19 years in prison before he was released on parole in 2009.

On January 24, 2019, Huwe Burton was exonerated by the Bronx Supreme Court. Justice Steven Barrett vacated his 1991 murder conviction. Justice Barrett based his decision on findings resulting from a joint reinvestigation between the Innocence Project and the Bronx District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), which uncovered that detectives from New York’s 47th precinct had coerced Mr. Burton into falsely confessing to murdering his mother when he was just 16 years old. Furthermore, additional new evidence surfaced about an alternate person who committed the crime.

Milgram Experiment and Reid Interrogation Technique

The social psychology of false confession and structural aspects of interrogation Milgram Experiment and Reid interrogation technique

It is a matter of fact that every individual differs in the extent to which they comply or can resist figures of authority pressing for a confession. It was found that the Reid interrogation technique is equivalent to Milgram’s famous obedience studies.

Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience studies that took place in the 1960s resulted in 65% of the participants obeying to the experimenter’s commands. In the experiment, the subjects were told to administer electric shocks to others who don’t learn their lessons quickly. The volunteers in the experiment did not know that the electric shocks were fake. But they showed disturbing willingness to inflict pain as high as 450 V of painful electric shocks when someone in authority told them to do so.

The parallels between police interrogations and the protocol that Milgram established to elicit obedience are striking. In both venues, the subject is isolated, confronted by a figure of authority and then the subject engages in a contractual agreement with that authority to proceed – volunteering and receiving payment in advance of participation in Milgram’s paradigm; signing a waiver of Miranda rights to silence and to counsel in the interrogation setting.

The authority figure uses deception to reframe the purposes and consequences of the subject’s actions. In Milgram’s experiments, subjects were led to believe that the objective was to test the effects of punishment on a learner through administration of shocks that maybe painful but do not cause any harm. In the interrogation, suspects are guided to believe that confession serves their personal self-interest better than denial.

It also raises a question on the ethics. The Milgram experiment erupted controversy and the publication still continues to exert influence over current day Institutional Review Boards in the behavioural sciences. In legal terms of interrogation, there is a concern regarding the “voluntariness” of a suspect’s confession and hence its admissibility as evidence in a trial.


Confession becomes a decision making dilemma, as to why anyone would confess to the police. Research on human decision-making has shown that people make choices that they think will maximise their well-being given the constraints they face. People tend to be impulsive in their orientation and prefer outcomes that are immediate rather than delayed consequences depreciating over time. The psychological power of interrogation is designed to increase the anxiety associated with denial and to decrease the anxiety associated with confession thereby making it easier for the rational suspect to make a decision to confess.

In the social psychology of false confession, an innocent life is put to stake over a faulty confession. Being in imprisonment for years costs freedom and raises eyebrows over the functioning of the Justice System. On the brighter side, new

means and clearer methods are being used to avoid wrongful imprisonment and safeguard the innocent from being prey to false confessions.

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