The new study proves for the first time what psychologists have long suspected: that manipulative questioning tactics used by police can induce false memories — and produce false confessions.
Published in January in the journal Psychological Science by Julia Shaw of the Britain’s University of Bedfordshire and Stephen Porter, a forensic psychologist who studies the role of memory in the legal system at the University of British Columbia, the study holds striking implications for the justice system.
“The human mind is very vulnerable to certain tactics in interviews,” Porter told the Star in an interview.
Shaw and Porter recruited 70 students at a Canadian university who had never committed a crime and told them they’d be taking part in a study about how well people could remember their childhoods. They asked students’ past caregivers for details about a vivid event that had taken place in the students’ lives between ages 11 and 14, such as an accident or an emotional first day at school. Caregivers and students agreed not to communicate about the experiment while it was ongoing.
Researchers questioned the students for three sessions of about 40 minutes each. They asked them to recall two events in their past: the true event and an added false one, both of which they said the caregivers had told them about. The false event was described in as general terms as possible — simply “an assault” or “an incident where you were in contact with the police.”
If subjects said they couldn’t remember the false event, questioners reassured them they would be able to retrieve their “lost memories” if they tried hard enough. If they began to “remember,” experimenters asked for more detail. Do you recall any images? How did you feel? Visualize what it might have been like, they said, and the memory will come back to you.
By the end of the third interview, more than 70 percent of subjects came to believe they had committed a crime just five or so years in the past. They didn’t merely agree they had done what the experimenters suggested — they generated all the details of the crime themselves, recalling vivid sensory memories and often becoming emotional and guilt-ridden.
Some subjects persisted in believing they were guilty after they had been told the “crime” had been invented. “A few people argued with the experimenter and said, ‘Well no, I know this happened,’ ” says Porter.
Think that’s scary? The psychologists did.
“We ended the study prematurely,” says Porter. Once he and Shaw had interviewed 60 of the students and realized the proportion of them generating false memories was high enough to support their hypothesis, they decided to spare the remaining 10 subjects the unnecessary upheaval.
If you really think the line, “The suspect later confessed during police interrogation,” means ANYTHING at all, you should probably read the full article.
And, really, it means only somewhat less than another line: “I uncovered memories of my childhood ________ abuse during therapy.”
The problem is, guilty people sometimes do finally crack under pressure and tell the truth — as also do innocent people admit to completely false things. People can partially or, in incredibly rare cases, completely repress memories only recovering them (sometimes in therapy) years later — but those memories can also be therapist created and implanted.
Both the police and the therapeutic community would like to believe (or at least act like) the above abuses are difficult to accomplish and so rare they are nearly unheard of.
Sadly, they’re not.
There’s a reason the courts have forced the police to inform suspects of their right to have an attorney present — who nearly always ends the interrogation instantly. (Perhaps, so-called, recovered memory therapists or trauma memory specialists should have the same in their therapy offices…)
But, even more importantly, when a research group is ethically forced to end a study early because it is TOO EASY to implant false memories, perhaps no one should ever again be quite as sure that they, “Clearly remember…”