False memories lead to false convictions

How did 70% of people admit to a crime that never actually happened?
19 September 2017

Interview with 

Julia Shaw, University College London


Prison cell bars


How would you feel if you sent an innocent person to prison? What if you confessed to the crime but you didn't actually do it? The way in which therapists or police question individuals can lead to the creation of a what’s called a false memory, which can then result in wrongful convictions. Izzie Clarke spoke to crime Psychologist and author of The Memory Illusion, Julia Shaw from University College London, who’s all too familiar with similar situations…

Julia - False memories are generally fabricated when we confuse something we just imagined with something that we actually experienced. So we think that we went to a party with a friend when really we did go to the party but the friend wasn’t there, so we’ve introduced a person into a setting that they weren’t actually in or, in the stuff that I study, we maybe think we committed a crime that never happened.

It’s a process whereby the brain essentially gets confused and often takes pieces that exist of real memories, so what a real person looks like, what a real situation is like, what a real space is like, and just puts those pieces together in a way that never actually happened.

Izzie - Thinking that your friend was at a party with you when they weren't compared to admitting or thinking that you did a crime are two different types of false memories. It’s quite a big difference between them! Looking into your research, what did your recent study set out to find?

Julia - In my study I set out to show whether we can get people to falsely confess to crimes that never happened and internalise that false confession, so to think that they actually committed this crime. So an assault, an assault with a weapon, or a theft, all with police contact. I didn’t just want to do it for fun, I wanted to show look, this might be really easy to do in a relatively benign interview situation. If you’ve got someone on the stand and the evidence is poor and all you’re relying on is their memory, you have to be careful.

Izzie - Talk me through that interview process. How did you actually have people believing that they committed a crime?

Julia - I contacted their parents ahead of time, so these were university students, and they knew that I’d contacted their parents. I asked the parents about events that happened when the participants were teenagers. Then I asked the participants to come in; they knew it was an emotional memory study so they knew we’d be talking about earlier events and emotional events. Then we started and we sat down and I said, "Okay, so your parents reported this thing happening", and it was a real event so the participant would start saying "okay, I remember that". So we’d go through the cognitive interview, which is currently best practiced for policing, and I’d go through "tell me everything you can remember about the events from start to finish". Then probing questions... "So you mention X tell me more about that." Over twenty minutes they’d build up the sense of "oh, she knows something about my life" and we’re building a rapport - I’m building trust.

Izzie - Is trust an important part of this?

Julia - Trust is a huge part of this. If the person doesn’t trust that you know more about their lives than they do then it’s not going to work.

Izzie - And then what did you do?

Julia - Then I introduced a second memory and this was the false memory. So I said "okay, when you were 14 years old your parents said that you assaulted someone with weapon and the police called your parents", which is allegedly how they found out. "You were with your best friend", and I inserted the name of the best friend, and you were in and then I inserted the name of the home town. So those two bits of reality added a lot of credibility as well.

Izzie - So the pieces about the location and the friend were true?

Julia - True from that age and these are easy things to picture. So, from that point on what I had them do - of course they said "I don’t know what you’re talking about", which is understandable because it didn’t happen. Then I said "would you like to try?" - the illusion of choice - "would you like to try this exercise? Which works for most people if they try hard enough". I said let’s do some imagination exercise. "Close your eyes and picture yourself at the age of 14, you’re with your friend so and so; where are you; where did this happen?" It’s building up what did it feel like to be there; "Why did you engage in this fight; what happened when the police came?" So building up these imaginary pieces but you can see they’re starting to buy into it. After three weeks, the way that I classified the memories, 70% had full false memory. So they confessed to these crimes that never happened and told me why it happened, what happened in multisensory details.

Izzie - Can you give me an example of what crimes we are talking about? The idea of a weapon sounds quite serious.

Julia - A weapon wasn’t a semi-automatic rifle - it was a rock. One girl was saying how she had a rock in her hand and she was attacking a love rival; she’d gone out and thrown this really big rock and every time she was sitting there during these interviews that happened three times, the rock got bigger. So she was really enacting in front of me this crime that never happened. It totally varied, but it had to fit within their life story.

Izzie - This was for research and it was quite controlled by yourself but say in an actual crime, and in a court situation, that can have really big implications.

Julia - In the real world, you can’t undo that process. If you start asking leading or suggestive questions, or you start doing imagination exercises where people confuse reality or experienced events with imagined ones, it’s hard to get rid of those. They can be really compelling and you can sit as a witness on the stand or you can be accused of a crime on the stand, and you can be saying all these memory details of this thing that you think happened that is untrue and you end up sending innocent people to jail.

Izzie - What can we do to prevent that situation?

Julia - What I want people to know is to know these things exist, first and foremost. So know that a false memory is a thing that can happen and in some ways trust your own lack of memory. As far as we know there’s no brain that is resistant to false memories. But also the justice system needs to know about it. I train military and police and I go and educate them on the science of memory and I say you guys really need to watch out with some of these interview tactics especially, for example, in the States, they use fake evidence - "we found your fingerprints at the scene" - that’s incredibly compelling. It’s about making sure that they’re proactively working against the creation of false memories because once they’re there they can be impossible to undo.


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