Read the text carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

What makes someone confess to a crime committed by somebody else? It seems so unnatural that we may discount the possibility. When a case does1 arise, we are inclined to regard it as exceptional, and proof that the confessors must have been put under extreme physical and psychological pressure. We may be able to imagine admitting a minor crime such as shoplifting to escape a police interrogation, but we find it much harder to believe that an innocent person would confess to a serious offence like murder.

But most well-publicised serious crimes spawn a crop of eccentrics2 who ‘confess’ to them, perhaps because of a desire for publicity or because of fantasies about committing the crime—over 200 people ‘confessed’ to the kidnapping in 1932 of the two-year-old son of the American aviator Charles Lindbergh. The police often keep some details of a serious crime secret to enable them to screen out such people4.

More important to the criminal justice system, and harder for the police to spot, are two other kinds of false confession resulting from interrogation. In the first type, the ‘coerced compliant5 confession, a person knows he or she hasn’t committed the crime but confesses to gain some immediate benefit—like being released from custody. Sometimes such people think they will be able to establish the truth later on. But in the other type of case, the ‘coerced internalised’ confession, a suspect becomes at least temporarily persuaded that he or she might have, or did, commit the crime, and begins to accept suggestions offered by the police.

Dr Gisli Gudjonsson, a psychologist, and Dr James MacKeith, a psychiatrist, have examined the psychological backdrop to the false confession. Dr Gudjonsson has studied nearly 150 cases in which confessions were retracted. Two psychological qualities appear to be involved: ‘interrogative suggestibility’ and ‘compliance’. Interrogative suggestibility is the tendency to accept, uncritically, information7 communicated during questioning: compliance is the tendency to do what you are told. Highly suggestible people are more likely to make coerced internalised confessions. Compliant people are more likely to make compliant confessions.

Dr Gudjonsson, a former police detective in Iceland, has devised a method of measuring suggestibility. His test is becoming part of the forensic psychologist’s armoury9. In one experiment he examined 12 people who had confessed to crimes but later retracted. He called this group the ‘false confessors’. He compared them with eight people who had been charged with crimes but I persistently denied them in spite of evidence—the ‘deniers’. He found that on a scale of one to 15, the false confessors had an average suggestibility score of 10.5, while the deniers averaged three. The deniers were four points below the score for normal males, suggesting that they were remarkably strong-minded individuals.

But not all the ‘false confessors’ had high suggestibility scores. This is not entirely surprising, since some of the retracted confessions may actually have been genuine. Or there may have been other psychological factors at work—such as compliance. According to Dr Gudjonsson, compliance is linked to a general willingness to please and a desire to avoid the unpleasant consequences of not complying. It is difficult to measure experimentally, but can be gauged by asking people to fill in questionnaires about themselves. Guilty feelings, he says, are an important element of compliance.

‘If you want to get people to do things that they don’t want to do, then inducing guilt is a very powerful tactic. Let’s say I want you to participate in an experiment, but you don’t want to do it because it will take a long time. The fact that I have spent time talking to you would facilitate that process, because if you said ‘no’ you might feel guilty. I’ve certainly seen cases where guilt has been manipulated in police interviews. It may not be that common, but I have seen it.’

Gudjonsson and MacKeith’s work is bedevilled by the fact that in very few cases of retracted confessions is it possible to establish the ‘ground truth’—what really happened. The fact that someone has been acquitted of a crime to which he or she confessed is not conclusive—it may have been on a technicality13. Conversely, there are cases where almost everyone agrees that there has been a miscarriage of justice14.

(adapted from an article by Jolyon Jenkins, The Independent)


1 Explain the use of ‘does’ in this context.

2 Give another expression for ‘spawn a crop of eccentrics’.

3 Why did so many people claim they had kidnapped Lindbergh’s son?

4 What does ‘screen out such people’ mean in this context?

5 Why do people make ‘coerced compliant’ confessions, and what risk might some of them be running?

6 What is the most important difference between the ‘coerced internalised’ confession and the ‘coerced compliant’?

7 Who gives the ‘information’ referred to in this context, and what is implied about it?

8 What sort of confessors actually believe they committed the crime?

9 Explain what is meant by ‘armoury’ in this context.

10 Who or what were the ‘deniers’?

11 What kind of ‘false confessors’ might be expected to be ‘strong-minded’?

12 Explain how psychologists test people for ‘compliance’.

13 What does the writer mean by the phrase ‘on a technicality’?

14 How would ‘a miscarriage of justice’ affect the confessor and the researchers?

15 In a paragraph of 70–90 words, summarise the reasons why people make false confessions.

Sample Answers

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