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Your memory of ‘crimes’ can be a lot less reliable than you think

Would you ever confess to a crime you didn’t commit? Would you ever allow yourself to be convinced of something you knew wasn’t true? Most of us would emphatically answer “no” to both questions. But don’t be so sure.

The unsettling reality is that human memory is far more fallible and malleable than most of us realize. The results of a recent psychological study confirm that false memories – even criminal memories – can be implanted. Studies like this one provide further evidence that criminal interrogations need to be carefully regulated to prevent suspects from being tricked or coerced into giving false confessions.

For the study, Canadian researchers contacted family members of about 60 university students. They asked the students’ primary caregivers to provide details about specific events that the students had experienced between ages 11 and 14.

The students were then interviewed individually three times. Each session was about a week apart and lasted 40 minutes or so. During initial interviews, researchers “reminded” students about two significant events that had happened when they were younger. One of the stories was real and the other was made up. The made-up stories included some real details from the students’ lives that researchers had learned from students’ families.

The fabricated story often involved a crime (assault, assault with a weapon or theft) that had supposedly been committed by the student. Another group of students was given a (false) story about an emotionally charged event in their past, such as a personal injury or losing a lot of money.

The results were astonishing. Half of the participants had been falsely told that they had committed a crime as a teenager. By the end of the three sessions, 71 percent had developed a false memory of the event – often one that was rich in detail. Of the students told about an emotionally charged event, nearly 77 percent had developed false memories.

Consider these results in the context of a criminal interrogation. Suspects accused of serious and violent crimes are often interrogated for hours on end by law enforcement officials who may lie, act with hostility and deprive suspects of food, water and rest. Under such circumstances, is it any surprise that innocent suspects sometimes end up confessing to crimes they didn’t commit?

If you ever find yourself under arrest or facing interrogation by police, please don’t go through the experience alone. Every suspect should have an experienced criminal defense attorney by his or her side before answering any questions.

Source: Association for Psychological Science, “People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened,” Jan. 15, 2015

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