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False Confessions: Annotated Clinical
Joe Wheeler Dixon, PhD, JD
annotated research findings have to do with false confessions and police
interrogation techniques. This listing was prepared for a defense attorney who
was representing a adolescent defendant with borderline intelligence who had
confessed to a crime.
Feel free to utilize the references below, but
understand that research in this field is constantly changing, and the
references below are not up to date.
Prepared for the Hon. William T. Beauregard, Esq.
Joe W. Dixon, PhD, JD
The following synopses can be used to generate questions
for direct examination or re-direct of the expert forensic psychologist you
have retained. Also, this information may be used as a database to
develop questions for examination of the opposing counsel’s expert. Most
jurisdictions adhere to the doctrine that a false confession will be judicially
decided based upon analysis and consideration of the totality of the
circumstances, which means police conduct, defendant's conduct, and other
All psychological tests and procedures mentioned below
meet or exceed both Frye and Daubert (FRE 2001)
admissibility standards. A detailed list of references mentioned below is
available; this list is not all inclusive.
Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale (GSS) instrument used to assess
possibility of a false confession
- The GSS2 has been factor analyzed and two distinct factors emerge: Yield
and Shift, with a coefficient alpha of 0.87 for Yield and 0.79 for Shift, the
two factors. Statistically, the scale is functioning as it was designed and is
validly measuring the construct it was designed to measure with good internal
consistency. The test also has good face validity. Singh & Gudjonsson, 1987;
Gudjonsson, 1987; Gudjonsson, 1992; Merckelbach et al, 1998.
- Inter-rater reliability of GSS2 is good with correlation coefficients of
0.99 for Yield, 0.99 for Shift, and 0.99 for Total (p < 0.001). Clare et al,
1994. There are several studies on this aspect of test construction with data
reported here only for Clare. All studies produced high coefficients
indicating different examiners across different subjects obtain consistent
results. The instrument is stable and reliable. Singh & Gudjonsson, 1987;
Richardson & Smith, 1993.
- The SEm is 4.8, that is, I am 95% confident that his true Total
suggestibility score on the GSS (Yield + Shift) is 12 +/- 4.8. This is a
measure of the reliability of the subject’s score, and gives us an idea of the
error associated with the suggestibility score, i.e., I would be wrong only 5%
of the time.
- Test-retest reliability coefficients range from 0.82 to 0.92 (p < .001)
between the two forms of the instrument (GSS1 and GSS2). This is another
measure of the instrument’s reliability over subjects, examiners, and time.
This data also goes to the issue of validity. GSS1 and GSS2 are so
statistically similar they can be used interchangeably as true alternate
Suggestibility, coercion, and confessions - research on juveniles and
- Suggestibility has been shown to correlate with several cognitive
variables. There is a pronounced and stable inverse relationship with
intelligence and with memory. Gudjonsson, 1983, 1988, 1990; Clare & Rutter,
1995; Gudjonsson & Clare, 1995; Singh & Gudjonsson, 1992; Danielsdottir et al,
1993. This increases their susceptibility to giving false confessions.
Richardson & Kelly, 1995.
- Subjects with low intelligence are much more susceptible to leading
questions, confabulate more, and are more acquiescent with interrogators.
Clare & Gudjonsson, 1993. This is mediated by prior convictions. Sharrock &
- Poor assertiveness, evaluative anxiety, state anxiety, and avoidance
coping strategies were significantly correlated with suggestibility scores.
State anxiety was highly positively correlated with the Shift score,
indicative that the more nervous a subject is in the police interrogations
setting, the more likely he can be persuaded with pressure to change his mind
and recollections. Gudjonsson, 1988. Generally, the higher the anxiety the
more suggestible. Wolfradt, 1998.
- Subjects less than 12 years old are significantly more suggestible and are
more easily influenced by negative feedback during interrogation (Shift). From
age 12 to 16 subjects perform similar to adults on both memory and Yield, but
score higher on Shift. After about age 16, there is no difference between
normal adolescents and normal adults in these measures. Six studies in this
area, the most representative being Gudjonsson & Lister, 1984.
- Suggestibility positively correlated with low intelligence, poor memory
recall, neuroticism, and social desirability. Gudjonsson, 1983.
- Warning normal adults of misleading or tricky questions can significantly
reduce their suggestibility to leading questions. Warren, 1991.
- Sleep deprivation significantly increases suggestibility, but subjects
maintained confidence in their former responses resulting in high
suggestibility to leading questions but resistance to coercion to change their
answers, e.g., high Yield and low Shift scores. Additional measures of
cognitive intactness showed declines from pre-deprivation levels. This group
is most akin to low functioning intellectual subjects in overall cognitive
ability. Increased suggestibility is a result of induced cognitive deficits.
There are three studies on this issue, with Blagrove, 1996, being the most extensive
- No relationship between suggestibility and mental patients with
hallucinations, reality monitoring, or depression have been established. Four
studies, with Smith & Gudjonsson, 1995, the most comprehensive. MacFarland &
Morris, 1998, found a positive correlation for dysphoric college students.
- The more suggestible subjects are, the less accurate they are in recalling
details, and the more erroneous information is produced during interrogation.
Tully & Cahill, 1984.
- False confessors are more suggestible than subjects who actively resist
persuasive techniques. Gudjonsson, 1991.
- With male forensic subjects, highly suggestible individuals were less
likely to change answers with mild negative feedback (high Yield and low
Shift). Richardson et al, 1998.
- Police interrogation tactics often include deceptive and deceitful
practices. Ironically, these tactics are influential in producing false
confessions, although police use them to coerce what they believe are guilty
subjects to confess. Underwager & Wakefield, 1992. (Review article).
- Low IQ subjects are more likely to believe that falsely confessing will
have little or no consequences, because of their knowledge of the truth of the
matter and belief that truth always wins out. This naiveté renders low
functioning subjects at higher risk for falsely confessing than normal
functioning subjects. Combined with susceptibility to acquiescence,
suggestibility, compliance with authority, and proclivity to confabulate puts
low IQ subjects at significantly higher risk for false confession in context
of a police interrogation. Clare & Gudjonsson, 1995.
- Police officer’s abrupt demeanor resulted in higher Shift scores without
much effect on Yield scores. This suggests the two independent measures of
suggestibility are differentially affected: Yield by psychological factors and
Shift by social factors, as hypothesized. Bain & Baxter, 2000. The greater the
social distance between subject and interrogator, the more pronounced the
effect. Baxter & Boon, 2000.
- Police and authorities do not believe claimed amnesia, depression, and
presenting as suggestible and eager to please render a subject unfit for
interrogation. In contrast, police do believe confusion and disorientation,
heroin withdrawal, paranoid beliefs, and incomprehension of simple questions
render a subject unfit. Gudjonsson et al, 2000.
- Police tactics that influence outcomes of interrogations include six
significant factors (22 factors identified): intimidation, robust challenge,
manipulation, questioning style, appeal, and soft challenge. The higher the
frequency of these tactics, the more likely courts rule the evidence
inadmissible. Pearse et al, 1999.
- It is well established that alcohol ingestion alters affective state,
principally by lowering anxiety. As hypothesized, alcohol ingestion lowered
suggestibility scores with no effect on Shift. Santtila et al, 1999.
- Factors in confessing include: younger age or abuse of unlawful substances
within 24 hours more likely, and less likely if attorney present or prior
convictions with time served. Pearse et al, 1998. No difference in answering
questions found with or without attorney, but significantly less likely to
waive right to silence or confess with attorney present. Pearse & Gudjonsson,
- Consistent with previous studies, interrogators are generally unable to
distinguish truthful from deceptive subjects; additionally, interrogators with
special training were poorer at discriminating, although they offered more
logical reasons and were more confident in their judgments. Kassin & Fong,
- Right to silence was claimed as understood by 89% of subjects, yet upon
close examination, only 11% had full understanding. Level of understanding was
linked to intelligence and was not mediated by demographic or criminal justice
influences or experiences. Cooke & Philip, 1998.
- Ninety-one experienced detectives assessed for discriminate ability to
identify truthful from lying suspects; success rate was only 49% - less
than chance. Also found lying associated with fewer body movements
(hands, feet, arms, & legs), contrary to majority belief of detectives that
liars were more active while lying than truth tellers. Vrij & Frans, 1993.
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