False Confessions: How you might confess to a crime you never committed.

Remembering a Crime

I’m a computer guy. So when I’ve thought of memory in the past, I’ve always explained it in those terms; working memory is sort of like RAM and Long term memory is like your hard-drive. This isn’t completely accurate of course, but it’s easier for those that do not understand memory to conceptualize. The problem with that analogy is that one cannot fully appreciate the complexity of memory, though I would suggest it is a bit more accurate than the filing cabinet analogy in that with a hard drive all the pieces of information are fragmented into bits and are spread out onto the disk. When you understand the complex nature of memory, you can then understand how it could create a false memory with just a mere suggestion.

There have been numerous studies that look at this. One of the biggest researcher in the area of false memories is Dr. Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Washington. She has done a number of different studies but one of her more famous is where she successfully implanted a false memory into participants about getting lost in a mall  in which an elderly person found them and reunited them with their family. Out of the 24 individuals, 7 of them remembered this false event. She is often credited with starting this research. This suggests that when a person is fed a false memory by those whom they trust, in this case stories from their parents, they are susceptible to recalling things that simply never happened. Another experiment that Loftus conducted had participants view a car accident in which they were told to recall certain facts about what happened. Participants were asked one of two questions, either they were asked how fast the cars were going when they hit each other or they were asked how fast they were going when they smashed into each other. The “hit” group estimated the speed being 34 miles per hour while the “smashed” group estimated that the cars were going about 41 miles per hour. The participants would even then recall seeing things at the scene that did not exist such as glass all over the road (there wasn’t).This is referred to as the misinformation effect.


This all suggest how inaccurate our memories can be when we try to remember specific events and how easily we can succumb to the mere suggestion of another individual with a bit of authority (e.g. parents). After all, we didn’t evolve to remember every detail of an event. It’s not very important to remember the color of the eyes of the lion that’s chasing after you or how many stripes a zebra has. It’s important to remember that big cats can kill you and zebras are a good source of sustenance.

So then, what happens if we take this understanding and throw it into criminal investigations? I present to you, the case of Michael Crowe:


Let’s be clear, these detectives were not merely suggesting that he had committed the murder of his sister, they went in already having decided that this 14 year old was guilty and they were determined to make him confess. They obviously succeeded. This was a much higher stakes event than what Loftus had done with her participants; one could rightfully argue that this could have an impact on false memories. The article at the top of the page brings into the discussion an experiment  that was conducted where participants were given a false story of them having committed a crime that led to police involvement. They modeled their experiment after Loftus’ work that was described above, in that they asked the parents to write about the participants past and then they threw in the false story. After a time, they were asked to remember events from their childhood and 70% of the participants (yes, 70%) remembered the false crime as if they had actually committed the crime. They didn’t just remember the event, they created elaborate stories about it.

This begs the question of how many innocent individuals have confessed to things that they have never done. In 2003, false confessions were the number one reason for wrongful convictions. Since 2000, there have been about 317 exonerations made by new DNA testing. About 30% of those (roughly 95 people) made false confessions and 18 of those were on death row.

Questioning suspects is a needed part of the criminal justice system. However, with what we have discussed, we can see how much we are susceptible to false memories.  Those doing the questioning must be trained to do so in a way that reduces the risk of false confessions because they have real and severe consequences.




Elizabeth Loftus’ TEDtalk

5 thoughts on “False Confessions: How you might confess to a crime you never committed.

  1. Alyssa

    This is an extremely interesting topic. It brings forth the issue that memory isn’t to be trusted and that people can be coerced into believing things that they haven’t ever done. It is true that eyewitness testimonies cannot be fully trusted, due to the pretty large gaps in our memory’s capacity to remember exact details. It is pretty sad to think that those convicted and placed in jail may have actually be put in there because of false memories, either on the part of an eyewitness or the part of the convicted suspect themselves. You definitely made a good point, that law enforcement officials need to be careful of what they say for they may bias the individual and make them believe false memories. With the help of Loftus’ research, hopefully there can be more productive change in that department.

    Good job! The videos were extremely helpful and your points were exceptionally clear.

  2. schung2

    First I want to say your opening of the post is good and understandable.I appreciate this post that gave me more informations about what we’ve learned in the class. I watched all three videos and they are really interesting! Especially the second one, I have never heard of it and I’m glad to know that false confession case. Well done.

  3. arunk

    I think you picked such an important topic to talk about for your post. False confessions are obviously a huge problem within our justice system and given its set up, they almost seem to be encouraged. I liked your use of videos to help explain your point and give more detail about real-life cases, too. If memory can be altered under non-stressful situations as in studies, then it can only be worse in high pressure situations in which the individual might be hungry, sleep deprived, or confused.

    Awesome post!

  4. Shawn Post author

    Thank you all, I’m glad you enjoyed my post! I find false memories very interesting and I have fallen in love with Dr. Loftus’ work. I find this topic profoundly disturbing thinkging of how many people may have already been executed who may have confessed to something they had never actually done. This is one reason I am opposed to the death penalty.

  5. Maryfay Jackson

    This reminds me of how Brian Williams thought that his own helicopter got shot down in Iraq but in reality he had just heard the story about the helicopter ahead of him getting shot down a bunch of times that he thought it was his memory. This has a large effect on how we act in the criminal justice system and Dr. Loftus is doing some phenomenal work.

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