A new study has found a link between false confessions and the confidence in incorrect identifications made by eyewitnesses. The study, conducted by psychologists at Iowa State University and John Jay College and published in the January issue of Psychological Science, found that the eyewitnesses became more confident in their identification when they learned that someone confessed to the crime.
The study was conducted by staging a fake crime in front of students in a university laboratory:
At some point, a person walked in, picked up a laptop from the desk, and walked out of the room. A few minutes later, the research assistant entered the room and announced, with obvious distress, that her laptop was missing. The group of students were the eyewitnesses and were asked to help solve the crime. The students were first asked to identify the thief from a line-up (however, unbeknownst to them, the actual thief was not in the lineup) and rate the confidence of their answers. The students returned two days later, to continue helping with the investigation. When they returned, they were told either that all of the suspects denied involvement or that a specific suspect confessed to the crime. The students were then to reconsider their original identification and rate how confident they were.
The vast majority of study volunteers identified an innocent man as the criminal, and many did so with confidence. That's disturbing in itself, but it gets worse. While few were persuaded by claims of innocence – that happens all the time – a disturbing number changed their mind when a suspect confessed. An astonishing 60 percent who had fingered one suspect flip-flopped when a different man confessed. Even those who had been very sure of their original identification experienced a steep drop in confidence. When asked to explain their change of heart, most said they had been mistaken earlier, that their memories had fooled them.
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. (Science Daily, 01/29/2009)