Friday, August 12, 2011

An Oddity of Human Nature

Everyone gets frustrated with police work. Paradoxically the police at times seem inept and unconcerned with catching criminals, but at other times they seem so keen on catching the "bad guys" that they go to extreme measure to catch anybody, even the innocent, in order to close the books.

Here's an interesting post by Vaughan Bell on "false confessions" at the Mind Hacks blog:
We’ve covered false confessions and how surprisingly common they are several times before on Mind Hacks but a new article from The Economist updates us on the latest lab studies.

DNA crime investigators The Innocence Project have discovered that about 25% of DNA exonerations have involved the accused making a false confession at the time of conviction.

This has sparked a great deal of interest into why people admit to crimes they have committed and, along with studying real-life cases, researchers have been trying to encourage false confessions in the lab to see what influences the behaviour.

The Economist has a brief round-up of some of the most interesting lab studies.
In an as-yet-unpublished study, members of Dr Horselenberg’s group told 83 people that they were taking part in a taste test for a supermarket chain. The top taster would win a prize such as an iPad or a set of DVDs. The volunteers were asked to try ten cans of fizzy drink and guess which was which. The labels were obscured by socks pulled up to the rim of each can, so to cheat a volunteer had only to lower the sock.

During the test, which was filmed by a hidden camera, ten participants actually did cheat. Bafflingly, though, another eight falsely confessed when accused by the experimenter, despite participants having been told cheats would be fined €50 ($72).
Link to The Economist ‘False confessions: Silence is golden’.
This sure complicates a policeman's work. This is as important as the fact of the notorious unreliability of "eyewitnesses". I don't understand the above result but there is a known phenomenon in psychology, the Asch Conformity Experiments, where subjects would deny their own personal experience in order to conform to a socially expected result. Perhaps certain subjects can easily be browbeaten by the police into "confessing" because that is what is expected of them.

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