Why Confess?

Why do suspects confess to the police? Researchers Allison Redlich, Richard Kulish, and Henry Steadman set out to answer this question by interviewing 65 jail inmates who had confessed, slightly more than half of whom claimed to have falsely confessed. The results are reported in their new article “Comparing True and False Confessions Among Persons With Serious Mental Illness,” 17 Psych., Pub. Pol’y, & L. 394 (2011). As the title indicates, the researchers were particularly interested in individuals with serious mental illness, which is a group that has been identified in the literature as especially likely to confess.

What I found most intriguing about the results was the importance of “internal pressure” as a motivation for confessing. This refers to feelings of guilt about the crime, a desire to “get it off one’s chest,” and a belief in the importance of honesty. Among the “true confessors,” guilt/honesty-type answers were the most common when the interviewer asked the open-ended question, “Tell me in your own words, why you confessed?” (403) (Not surprisingly, almost none of the ”false confessors” cited such reasons.) By contrast, “external pressure” (e.g., bullying by the police) was rarely cited by either true or false confessors. (The most common reason given for false confessions was a desire to protect someone else.)

Similarly, when subjects were asked to rate various suggested motivations on a seven-point scale (1 was “not at all” a reason to confess, and 7 was “very much so”), the true confessors rated guilty feelings as among the more important, with an average score of 3.52. (407) 

This was higher, for instance, than the scores for such alternative explanations as fear of the police, a desire to protect someone else, and the expectation of a lighter sentence. The highest-rated motivation for true confessions was “because [I] saw no point in denying it at the time” (5.59).

To the extent that subjects confessed in the hope of obtaining some release from their feelings of guilt, it seems that this actually worked to some extent. When asked ”did you experience a sense of relief after confessing,” true confessors gave an average response of 4.19 (7=very much so). When asked “are you now pleased that you confessed,” they gave an average response of 4.68.

I think the results are interesting for what they suggest about the internal moral life of many individuals in a population that is often assumed to be deeply and uniformly depraved, and responsive only to force and threats. (To be sure, though, when specifically prompted, many subjects did indicate that police bullying played a role in their confessions, giving that an average rating of 4.21.)

Of course, we can’t read too much into this one study, which relied on after-the-fact self-reports by a small sample of mentally ill people. But the finding that internal pressures play an important role is consistent with the one earlier study of motivations for true confessions. (395) It also helps to make sense of a remarkably common behavior that might otherwise appear wholly irrational – a range of previous studies have found confession rates of about 65 percent. (395) Defense lawyers are often frustrated by their clients’ loose lips, but at least some clients may feel strong, durable feelings of psychological release that partly or wholly counterbalance the negative legal ramifications of a confession.

Cross posted at Life Sentences Blog.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Tom Kamenick

    Very interesting! I’d be interested to see a similar study asking people why they decided to try and suppress their confessions if they felt that confessing was the right thing to do for those various reasons. The reason I could never do criminal defense work is that in my personal beliefs, it’s always in a person’s best interest to confess and take a punishment for a wrong they committed.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.