by Julia Shaw
January 15, 2015
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
didn't actually commit.
New research provides lab-based evidence
for this phenomenon, showing that innocent adult participants can be
convinced, over the course of a few hours, that they had
perpetrated crimes as serious as assault with a weapon in their
The research (Constructing
Rich False Memories of Committing Crime), published in
Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for
Psychological Science (APS),
indicates that the participants came to internalize the stories they
were told, providing rich and detailed descriptions of events that
never actually took place.
"Our findings show that false
memories of committing crime with police contact can be
surprisingly easy to generate, and can have all the same kinds
of complex details as real memories," says psychological
scientist and lead researcher Julia Shaw of the University of
Bedfordshire in the UK.
"All participants need to generate a richly detailed false
memory is 3 hours in a friendly interview environment, where the
interviewer introduces a few wrong details and uses poor
Julia Shaw and co-author
Stephen Porter of the University of British Columbia in Canada
obtained permission to contact the primary caregivers of university
students participating in the study.
The caregivers were asked to fill out a
questionnaire about specific events the students might have
experienced from ages 11 to 14, providing as much detail as
possible. The caregivers were instructed not to discuss the
questions with the student.
The researchers identified a total of 60 students who had not been
involved in any of the crimes designated as false memory targets in
the study and who otherwise met the study criteria. These students
were brought to the lab for three 40-minute interviews that took
place about a week apart.
In the first interview, the researcher told the student about two
events he or she had experienced as a teen, only one of which
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 caregiver
Participants were asked to explain what happened in each of the two
events. When they had difficulty explaining the false event, the
interviewer encouraged them to try anyway, explaining that if they
used specific memory strategies they might be able to recall more
In the second and third interviews, the researchers again asked the
students to recall as much as they could about both the true and
false event. The students also described certain features of each
memory, such as how vivid it was and how confident they were about
The results were truly surprising.
Of the 30 participants who were told they had committed a crime as a
teenager, 21 (71%) 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%) formed false memories of
the emotional event they were told about.
Intriguingly, the criminal false events seemed to be just as
believable as the emotional ones. Students tended to provide the
same number of details, and reported similar levels of confidence,
vividness, and sensory detail for the two types of event.
Shaw and Porter speculate that incorporating true details, such as
the name of an actual friend, into an account that was supposedly
corroborated by the student's caregiver likely endowed the false
event with just enough familiarity that it came to seem plausible.
"In such circumstances, inherently
fallible and reconstructive memory processes can quite readily
generate false recollections with astonishing realism," says
"In these sessions we had some
participants recalling incredibly vivid details and re-enacting
crimes they never committed."
There were, however, some differences
between the students' memories for false events and their memories
for true events. For example, they reported more details for true
events and they reported more confidence in their descriptions of
the true memories.
The fact that the students appeared to internalize the false events
to the extent that they did highlights the fundamental malleability
"This research speaks to the
distinct possibility that most of us are likely able to generate
rich false memories of emotional and criminal events," says
The findings have clear implications for
criminal interrogation and other aspects of legal procedure,
affecting suspects, witnesses, and those involved in both law
enforcement and legal counsel.
But they may also apply to interviews
that take place in various other contexts, including therapeutic or
even personal settings.
"Understanding that these complex
false memories exist, and that 'normal' individuals can be led
to generate them quite easily, is the first step in preventing
them from happening," says Shaw.
"By empirically demonstrating the
harm 'bad' interview techniques - those which are known to cause
false memories - can cause, we can more readily convince
interviewers to avoid them and to use 'good' techniques
Investigating the specific
characteristics of interviewers and interview tactics that
contribute to false memories can help improve interviewing procedure
and minimize the risk of inducing false memories, the researchers
The researchers were supported by the University of British Columbia
through the Lashley and Mary Haggman Memory Research Award and the
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.