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People can be convinced they committed a crime in just 3 hours

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New research has shown that over the course of just a few hours,
innocent adults can be convinced that they committed a crime in their
teenage years – some as serious as assault with a weapon – even if that
crime was completely made up.
 
Innocent people can be questioned by police in such a way that they
end up convincing themselves that they’ve committed a crime. And this
belief can be so strong, they can sometimes follow that belief up with a
false confession.
Early last year, a
team of lawyers and statisticians published a paper stating that 4.1
percent of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death in the US are
falsely convicted. To investigate this phenomenon, a study led by
psychological scientist Julia Shaw from the University of Bedfordshire
in the UK investigated the possible cause, and found that, if questioned
in the right way, innocent people can fabricate stories in their minds
with so much detail, they can falsely convince themselves that they
committed a crime.
“Our findings show that false memories of
committing crime with police contact can be surprisingly easy to
generate, and can have all the same kinds of complex details as real
memories,” Shaw said in a press release.
“All participants need to generate a richly detailed false memory is
three hours in a friendly interview environment, where the interviewer
introduces a few wrong details and uses poor memory-retrieval
techniques.”

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Shaw
and her colleague, forensic psychologist Stephen Porter from the
University of British Columbia in Canada, started by recruiting 60
university students who had not been involved in any crimes. The
researchers then asked their primary caregivers to fill out a
questionaire relating to specific events these students could have
experienced between the ages of 11 and 14, and were asked to elaborate
as much as their memories would permit. These questions were kept a
secret from the students.
Next, the students were brought into the lab to undergo three 40-minute interviews stretched over a three-week period. 
During
the first interview, the researchers briefly described two events to
each of the students, one that the students had experienced in their
teenage years (the details of which were provided by their caregiver),
and one that was false, and never actually happened. 
Half of
these false events involved a crime that came to the attention of the
police, such as an assault, an assault with a weapon, or a theft. The
other 50 percent included a fake dog attack or some other kind of
injury, or the loss of a huge sum of money. These events never actually
happened, but the researchers peppered their descriptions with enough
true details of the student’s time as a teenager – such as the name of a
friend at that point in their life – to make them sound convincing. 
The
students were asked to explain what happened to them during each of
these events. Naturally, they struggled to recall the details of the
false event, but were encouraged to keep trying, and the researchers
suggested they try various memory strategies to help them ‘remember’. 
During
the second and third interviews, the following weeks, the students were
once again asked to recall what happened during both the true and false
events. As they were describing certain features of their memories,
they were asked to state how vivid these memories were, and how
confident they were that these were the truth.
Publishing their results in the journal Psychological Science,
Shaw and Porter found that of 30 students who were told they’d
committed a crime in their teenage years, 21 – so, 71 percent – ended up
developing a false memory of the event taking place. Of the 20 who were
told they committed some kind of assault, either with or without a
weapon, 11 were able to describe in incredible detail their interaction
with the police on the matter – an event that never happened. 
Similarly,
76.6 percent of the 30 students who were fed false stories about their
teenage years that weren’t of a crimal nature ended up forming false
memories about them too.
The researchers report that when they
compared the false stories, the false crime memories ended up just as
detailed as the false emotional memories, right down to similar ratings
of confidence, vividness, and sensory detail, as determined by the
students. It was those small, true details that convinced the students
of a much bigger lie.
“In such circumstances, inherently fallible
and reconstructive memory processes can quite readily generate false
recollections with astonishing realism. In these sessions, we had some
participants recalling incredibly vivid details and re-enacting crimes
they never committed,” Shaw said.
“This research speaks to the distinct possibility that most of us are
likely able to generate rich false memories of emotional and criminal
events.”
The researchers say what they found could have huge
implications for the criminal justice system when it comes to recording
suspect and witness testimonies. And all those Serial fans out there
understand the weight a witness testimony can carry with the jury and
judge presiding over a case that’s lacking in physical evidence. 
“Understanding
that these complex false memories exist, and that ‘normal’ individuals
can be led to generate them quite easily, is the first step in
preventing them from happening,” says Shaw in the press release.
“By empirically demonstrating the harm ‘bad’ interview techniques –
those which are known to cause false memories – can cause, we can more
readily convince interviewers to avoid them and to use ‘good’ techniques
instead.”

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