New study has implications for criminal interrogation

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London, Jan 16 (IANS) Innocent adults can be manipulated to believe, over the course of a few hours, that they had committed heinous crimes in their teenage years, says a study.

Evidence from some wrongful conviction cases suggests that suspects can be questioned in ways that lead them to falsely believe in and confess to committing crimes they did not actually commit.

“Our findings show that, after police contact, false memories of committing crime can be surprisingly easy to generate and can have all the same kinds of complex details as real memories,” said psychological scientist Julia Shaw from the University of Bedfordshire in Britain.

Shaw and co-author Stephen Porter of the University of British Columbia in Canada identified students who had not been involved in any of the crimes designated as false memory targets in the study.

These students were brought to the lab for 40-minute interviews.

In the interview, the researcher told students about two events he or she had experienced as a teenager, only one of which actually happened.

For some, the false event related to a crime that resulted in contact with the police (assault, assault with a weapon or theft).

For others, the false event was emotional in nature, such as personal injury, attack by a dog, or loss of a huge sum of money.

Importantly, the false event stories included some true details about that time in the student’s life, taken from the care giver questionnaire.

The results were surprising.

Of the 30 participants who were told that they had committed a crime as a teenager, 21 (71 percent) were classified as having developed a false memory of the crime.

Of the 20 who were told about an assault of some kind (with or without a weapon), 11 reported elaborate false memory details of their exact dealings with the police.

A similar proportion of students (76.67 percent) formed false memories of the emotional event they were told about.

The research team observed that incorporating true details such as the name of an actual friend into an account endowed the false event with just enough familiarity that it came to seem plausible.

The findings have clear implications for criminal interrogation.

“This research speaks to the distinct possibility that most of us are likely able to generate false memories of emotional and criminal events,” Shaw said.

The research was published in the journal Psychological Science.

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