True and false confessions to an intentional act: A novel experimental paradigm

Melissa Beth Russano, Florida International University


Due to the powerful nature of confession evidence, it is imperative that we investigate the factors that affect the likelihood of obtaining true and false confessions. Previous research has been conducted with a paradigm limited to the study of false confessions to an act of negligence, thereby limiting the generalizability of the findings. The first goal of the current study was to introduce a novel paradigm involving a more serious, intentional act that can be used in the study of both true and false confessions. The second goal was to explore the effects of two police interrogation tactics, minimization and an offer of leniency, on true and false confession rates. Three hundred and thirty-four undergraduates at a large southeastern university were recruited to participate in a study on problem-solving and decision-making. During the course of the laboratory experiment, participants were induced to intentionally break or not break an experimental rule, an act that was characterized as “cheating.” All participants (i.e., both innocent and guilty) were later accused of the act and interrogated. For half of the participants, the interrogator used minimization tactics, which involved downplaying the seriousness of the offense, expressing sympathy, and providing face-saving excuses, in order to encourage the participant to confess. An offer of leniency was also manipulated in which half the participants were offered a “deal” that involved the option of confessing and accepting a known punishment or not confessing and facing the threat of harsher punishment. Results indicated that guilty persons were more likely to confess than innocent persons, and that the use of minimization and an explicit offer of leniency increased both the true and false confession rates. Furthermore, a cumulative effect of techniques was observed, such that the diagnosticity of the interrogation (the ratio of true confessions to false confessions) decreased as the number of techniques used increased. Taken together, the results suggest that caution should be used when implementing these techniques in the interrogation room.

Subject Area

Social psychology|Criminology

Recommended Citation

Russano, Melissa Beth, "True and false confessions to an intentional act: A novel experimental paradigm" (2004). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. AAI3128613.