Can You Really Be Convinced You Committed a Crime You Didn't Commit?

It’s a well-known psychological phenomenon that it only takes a few hours for you to be convinced that you committed a crime you really didn’t commit. The criminal justice system relies heavily on the accuracy of human memory and the credibility of its testimonies. Yet, human memory is highly malleable and susceptible to suggestions and false implants. Some wrongful conviction cases suggest that innocent suspects, when questioned using certain tactics, can be led to believe and confess to committing crimes they never did. In 2015, a psychological study was performed at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK. A team of researchers led by scientist Julia Shaw found that a certain type of questioning can help generate false memories relatively easily. The team used a friendly interview environment, introduced a few incorrect details, and applied poor memory-retrieval techniques. For the study, the research team first contacted the parents of the volunteer students and asked them to fill out questionnaires about specific events the students might have experienced from ages 11 to 14. They were instructed not to discuss these questions with the students. The researchers then subjected the students to three 40-minute interviews about two events from their teenage years — one real and one falsely constructed — with true details from their past mixed in. Out of the 30 participants told they had committed a crime as a teenager, 21 (71%) developed a false memory of the “crime.” These findings emphasize the fundamental malleability of memory. The knowledge that innocent individuals can be led to create complex false memories serves as a cautionary tale.