Sunway Psychology Club: The Psychology of Interrogations & Confessions

On 20th August 2021, the Sunway Psychology Club had organized a talk to share about the psychology regarding interrogations and confessions. The speaker of the talk, Dr Chung Kai Li, who is a PhD holder in Psychology from Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland, is currently the Deputy Head of Section and the Programme Lead at the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences in the University of Reading Malaysia. She has been studying investigative interviewing for her research and often works closely with child victims and witnesses.

Interrogation is often related to negative acts including torture or abuse as means to make a suspect confess his or her crime. People usually assume that confessions are done only when one is guilty of the crime, but false confessions do happen. What is the reason behind confessing to a crime that one did not commit?

Dr Chung explained the importance of a confession statement when there is no direct hard evidence or biological evidence to prove someone’s guilt. To further illustrate, she showed a case study known as The Central Park Five. In 1989, four teenagers were suspected to be involved in a cruel rape case. After going through an aggressive interrogation, these boys confessed the crime and were able to provide details about the crime scene. They were then sentenced to prison through their confession. 

Strangely, another man in the prison admitted to the crime a few years later. To validate his claim, scientists tested the biological samples, which eventually proved that this man is the real perpetrator and the four boys were innocent. How did the boys provide details of the event when they did not commit the crime? What had happened during the interrogation? These answers lie within the following interrogations techniques: 

Reid technique 

According to Dr Chung, interrogation can be categorized into either the accusatorial Reid technique or the PEACE model. With the main objective of obtaining a confession, suspects who go through the accusatorial method are usually asked the same questions repeatedly until they admit the crime and sign the confession statement, even if they are innocent. On the other hand, the PEACE model involves rapport building between the interrogator and the suspect. With stronger trust, suspects may be more willing to cooperate during the information gathering session. 

Recent research has deemed the Reid technique unethical, as a person is presumed to be guilty and manipulated to obtain proof. Dr Chung also shared that some police misconduct has occurred through torture or violence to get confessions from suspects. However, studies have shown that torturing only gives a negative impact to the information collection process. From a psychological viewpoint, the process involves confirmation bias as the interrogator will work hard until they obtains sufficient information to confirm the validity of their premade conclusions. 

Setting of police interrogations (Source)

The Reid Technique is a psychologically-oriented method for the accusatorial  interrogation. It first requires a specific environment for the interrogation room to invade the suspect’s privacy, creating an eagerness to leave the room. Next, the interrogator will need to follow these nine steps. 

Step 1: Direct positive confrontation

Step 2: Theme development

Step 3: Handling denial

Step 4: Overcoming objections

  • In these first four steps, the interrogator needs to handle the suspect’s objection and denial using different methods.

Step 5: Procurement and retention of suspect’s attention

Step 6: Handling suspect’s passive mood 

  • After some time, the suspect will start to psychologically withdraw and become fed up with the condition. In this situation, the suspect will do anything just to leave the room. 

Step 7: Presenting an alternative question 

  • Interrogator will then present alternative questions such as, “Did you rob the woman or stab the woman?”. The tired suspect would then choose the less disgraceful answer to let the process go on, but this would let him or her fall trap to their own answers.

Step 8: Having suspects orally relate details of offence

  • After that, the suspect will be asked to recall the details of their crime once again. 

Step 9: Converting oral confession into written confession 

  • Once the suspect has successfully described the details of crime verbally, he or she will be asked to make a written confession. 

Criticisms 

There have been many criticisms of Reid Technique, especially due to its coercive nature from the psychological viewpoint. One of the assumptions, “two denials imply guilt”, in Reid Technique has also not been proven empirically. 

  1. Accuracy of judging truth and deception

The statement that “trained investigators have 85% accuracy in judging truth and deception” was inaccurate by a study by Kassin and Fong in 1988. They found that individuals trained with the Reid technique made more confident but less accurate judgements between the innocent and the perpetrator as compared to untrained investigators. In another study by Meissner and Kassin (2002) that included police, trained evaluators also showed the lowest accuracy in judging between the innocent and the perpetrator. 

  1. Impact on Miranda rights 

Speaking of this, Dr Chung pointed out that interrogation also has its impact on Miranda rights of the suspect. It is the well-known line spoken to the suspects as such, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” This Miranda warning acts to protect people from self incrimination. The meaning of self incrimination is that everything one has said can be used in court later for accusing himself or herself of a criminal offense.

When one is placed in different interrogation conditions, Kassin and Norwick (2004) found that the innocent are more likely to waive their Miranda rights, especially when the interrogator shows sympathy to the suspect. With a naive faith in a world of justice, the innocent tend to speak up for themselves to prove their innocence. In some police misconduct cases, the innocent may also waive their rights when the interrogators made false promises like, “If you cooperate with us, you will have lighter punishment.” Due to these situations, Miranda rights are not efficient in protecting vulnerable populations who are not aware of the importance of their own Miranda rights. 

  1. Effect on aggressiveness of interrogation conducts

The main objective of interrogation is to obtain confession from a suspect who was thought to be the criminal. A study was conducted in 2003 by Kassin, Goldstein, Savitsky to understand its impact on the interrogation process. A group of interrogators was told that 1 out of 5 suspects was guilty, while another group was told 4 out of 5 was guilty. With the expected numbers in mind, interrogators from the latter group were observed to exert more pressure during the interrogation process. In addition, they were seen to be more aggressive to the innocent whose denial triggered a more aggressive response. The phenomenon is known as behavioral confirmation where one performs certain action to reinforce the expectation of another person. 

  1. Criticism from a social-psychological aspect

The Reid technique has been claimed to induce Milgram-like nature, a situation where people followed orders of authority even though the actions were against their personal wills. This can be seen from the two methods used in Reid Technique including maximization (involves intimidating) and minimization (soft-sell technique to create false sense of security). 

  1. Impact of alternative questions

Relating back to the four boys who were innocent, how did they describe the details so vividly? Dr Chung explained that interrogations were mainly based on memory recalling which can be easily conditioned by repeating questions or other thoughts. For example, the interrogator can ask “Is this the first time something like this has happened, or have you done it hundreds of times before?”

When suspects were presented two choices in the psychologically withdrawn situation, they would choose a less disgraceful answer. In fact, their answer is sufficient to condition the memory of the suspect by internalizing the scene, which could manipulate them to picture the whole process without going through the process.

Risk factors of false confession 

False confessions can happen based on the circumstances during the interrogation or interview process. However, certain populations are more likely to become the victim of false confessions including children and adolescents, individuals with cognitive and intellectual disabilities, and individuals with psychopathy issues. They usually lack the knowledge of their Miranda rights or have low social esteem. 

This situation is largely due to three aspects, which are compliance, suggestibility, and conformity. Compliance refers to the tendency of someone following instructions for some immediate gain. In this case, the suspect might be told that they can end the interrogation sooner or meet their family if they cooperate with the interrogation process. Without the capacity for mature decision making, the vulnerable populations will have a higher tendency to comply with instructions given. 

The next aspect, suggestibility, refers to the condition in which ideas, beliefs, or actions are accepted without critically processing them. When misleading questions are presented, children or individuals with lower intelligence are more likely to accept them and internalise the questions in their mind, thereby affecting their memories and confessing to crimes. Lastly, these vulnerable populations tend to conform to social influences by changing their behaviours or actions in order to fit in the social group. 

Conformity (Source)

Protection against false confession 

Instead of aiming for a confession, an interrogator should remain objective and focus on obtaining the most accurate, complete, and detailed information about the incident from the suspects. This procedure is known as an investigative interview. In this case, misleading questions should not be asked repetitively to avoid contaminating the memory of the suspects. Since this is different from the usual interrogation method, police officers should be provided proper training, especially the knowledge from the psychology aspect. Dr Chung emphasized multiple times that a more humane method has to be used in order to maximize the information collecting procedure.

To ensure the integrity of interrogation, the best way is to record the whole interview process. Even if the process is recorded only using a smartphone, the whole conversation can be analyzed objectively apart from both the interrogator’s and the suspect’s perspective. With this piece of evidence, any police misconduct can be detected which in turn protects both parties. 

Besides, Dr Chung also mentioned the need for policy change. It should be illegal when the interrogator starts making fake statements such as, “I have evidence of you breaking the window”, when there is no real evidence supporting that statement. Besides, suspects should not go through long hours of interrogation that can put them under a high level of psychological distress. 

Children below 18 should undergo their interview in a child interview center (CIC) to protect them as they are not mature enough to detect any manipulation or exploitation from interrogation processes. In addition, Dr Chung suggested that the presence of a lawyer should be mandatory while conducting investigative interviews with the vulnerable suspect populations. 

Closing 

Since much of the research is in North American and European contexts, there is insufficient studies about forensic interviews in Asian countries and in Malaysia. As noticed by Dr Chung, Asian countries are well known to practise the culture of compliance that can worsen the incidents of false confession during interrogations.  In addition, Malaysians may face the challenge to preserve their meaning when their words are being translated from their mother tongue to the national language, Bahasa Malaysia.

As a branch of the whole forensic science, forensic psychology requires specialization and investment of time and effort to improve several issues in the forensic field. Dr Chung’s sharing also demonstrates another possible pathway of psychology in Malaysia. She believed that more future investments in investigative research and training of psychological officers can eventually contribute to the reform of the legal system in Malaysia. 

Written by: Chee San 

Edited by: Maki

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