Confessions: true or false?  

Would you confess to a crime you didn't commit? Could you tell if someone else was giving a false confession?

“It’s very difficult to distinguish between true and false confessions,” says Dr. Steven Smith, Professor of Psychology and Acting Associate Vice-President, Enrolment Management & Registrar.

On January 9, Smith led a brown-bag lunch workshop on the subject, for a group of 35 students, faculty and staff. In his presentation, he cited statistics from studies that indicate how tricky it can be to identify a false confession. One would assume that certain professionals would be more equipped to detect deception but in one study, psychologists and even judges didn’t fare much better than university students. And all of them fared badly.  

Smith tested the theory in a group exercise, showing four videos of young men participating in a research study in Massachusetts. In the videos, the men confessed to such crimes as assault, break and enter, and armed robbery. All four had been found guilty of actual crimes but only two gave the truth on camera about the crimes they had committed. When asked to determine whether these confessions were true or false, most workshop attendees were able to guess just one out of four correctly.

Smith also discussed the phenomenon of innocent people giving false confessions, which is much more common than you might expect. Police interrogation styles such as the Reid Technique can pressure innocent suspects to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, through tactics such as isolation, confrontation, interruption, and showing sympathy. Juveniles, persons with mental health issues, and people impaired by alcohol or drugs tend to be most vulnerable to these interrogation styles, Smith said.

The lunchtime session was presented by SMU Human Resources, as part of its Wellness Wednesday series. Next up in the series is “Boost your positive outlook,” scheduled for January 16. To register for the next session or join the mailing list for regular updates, contact wellness@smu.ca. You can also watch online for upcoming events via Working at Saint Mary's.