Forming false memories may be surprisingly easy for the wrongly accused

New research suggests that it may be relatively easy for people to form false memories of criminal activity based on external suggestion.

Exonerations of people who gave false confessions occasionally make headlines in Sarasota, but to many people, such confessions may seem uncommon. Surprisingly, though, false confessions are the third leading cause of wrongful convictions. According to the Innocence Project, over 25 percent of these convictions involve false confessions.

In many cases, people who face serious criminal charges may give false confessions due to duress, intoxication or confusion. However, according to new research, some of these admissions may occur because innocent people become convinced that they have actually committed crimes.

Process of fabricating memories

Research suggests that people can form convincing false memories in response to external suggestion, which has troubling implications for the wrongly accused. In one recent study, researchers found that they did not even need to use heavy-handed tactics to make innocent people develop false recollections of committing crimes. According to The Daily Mail, the researchers took the following steps:

  • They obtained information about each participant's adolescent years, including a description of one memorable and emotionally charged event.
  • They conducted interviews with the participants and asked them to recall two events from their childhood: the real event and a second fictional event. The researchers told half of the participants that the second event resulted in contact with the police and involved theft, assault or assault with a weapon.
  • The researchers gently encouraged the participants to try to remember the fictional event through techniques such as visualization.

It's worth noting that these tactics were much milder than the ones that authorities use. The participants only engaged in three friendly 45-minute interviews with the researchers. The researchers did not threaten the participants or accuse them of criminal activity. Still, a surprising number of participants generated fictional memories.

High rates of false memories

Altogether, 70 percent of the participants who were told that they committed crimes fabricated memories of those crimes. These memories often featured colorful details; for example, according to The Toronto Star, one girl specifically recalled throwing a rock at another girl's head. Many of the study participants also experienced strong emotions, such as guilt, in association with these false memories.

Even more troublingly, many participants were highly confident in their false memories. Some even maintained that their memories were legitimate after they were told that the crime was actually a fictional event. This highlights the potential difficulty involved in identifying false confessions and remedying wrongful convictions after such confessions have been given.

Threat of false confessions in Florida

False confessions are a danger that anyone facing criminal charges in Florida should appreciate. A look at data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that, out of 61 people who were convicted in Florida and later exonerated, six gave false confessions. The rate of false confessions that go uncaught might be even higher.

To reduce the risk of this outcome, anyone facing criminal charges should consult with a defense attorney immediately. An attorney may be able to advise a person of his or her rights and other options for addressing criminal charges.