Inside Interrogation: The Lie, the Bluff and False Confessions
Conventional wisdom maintains that the “bluff” — an interrogation technique in which investigators state they have potentially damning evidence but do not claim that this evidence implicates the accused — is of little concern to the innocent falsely accused but can frighten the guilty into confessing. According to The Innocence Project, however, approximately 25% of convicted criminals ultimately exonerated had, in fact, confessed to the crime, as The Economist notes.
A 2010 study from CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice published in Law and Human Behavior, “Inside Interrogation: The Lie, the Bluff and False Confessions,” describes a series of laboratory experiments that test how the bluff technique correlates with confessions gained from innocent parties. Subjects were instructed to complete a task, then were falsely accused of a transgression such as crashing the computer or collaborating with a colleague to improve their task performance. The experiment introduced variables such as bluff evidence, false evidence and less-than-honest eyewitnesses to identify which were the most likely to prompt a confession.
Key study highlights include:
- In the first test group, 43 of 71 subjects confessed to the experimenter that they had pressed a computer key they had been instructed to avoid when, in fact, they had not; an additional 10% admitted to pressing the key to a study observer. A second group that tested subject reactions to charges of cheating produced nearly identical percentages of false confessions.
- In the first test group, “introduction of an innocence-affirming witness did not bluff participants from the accusations and pressures of the situation.”
- In the second test group, “94% of participants expressed some degree of certainty in their own innocence: 24 (73%) were completely certain, 7 (21%) were somewhat to mostly certain; 2 (6%) said they were somewhat certain of their guilt. Despite the fact that most participants knew they were innocent, however, a majority agreed to confess.”
- In the second test group, “75% of those who confessed in the bluff condition explicitly cited the bluff as the reason for that decision.” Reasons cited for the confession included wanting to finish the study and feeling sorry for the experimenter.
- Ninety percent of subjects who believed that a hidden camera had captured their actions confessed, while only twenty-seven percent of control subjects did.
The study’s authors note that “innocent people who stand accused believe that their innocence will become apparent to others … which leads them to waive their Miranda right to silence and to an attorney.” However, they conclude that these experiments “convincingly demonstrate that use of the bluff tactic in an interrogation can induce compliant false confessions from innocent people. Importantly, however, additional research is needed to reassess the predicted effectiveness of the bluff on the true confession rates of perpetrators.”
Tags: crime, law, civil rights
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Law and Human Behavior study titled “Inside Interrogation: The Lie, the Bluff and False Confessions.”
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the study-related Economist article titled "Silence Is Golden."
- Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
- Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example, does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.