The Psychology of False Confessions and Punishment

A recent instalment of Scientific American’s ’60-Second Psych’ discusses a series of articles on why innocent people confess to crimes they didn’t commit, and the problems this can pose.

Scientists had 206 subjects witness a “staged” crime and then were asked to pick the perpetrator from a line up. They were later told that their choice denied the crime, and nearly 30 percent changed their identified pick.

But the greatest change occurred when participants were told that another person, not the person they picked, had confessed to the crime. Now, 61 percent changed their identification, choosing the confessor.

On a related subject (via Mind Hacks), another Scientific American article looks at how the brain makes judgements about crime:

The assignment of responsibility and the choice of an appropriate punishment lie at the heart of our justice system. At the same time, these are cognitive processes like many others—reasoning, remembering, decision-making—and as such must originate in the brain. These two facts lead to the intriguing question: How does the brain enable judges, juries, and you and me to perform these tasks? What are the neural mechanisms that let you decide whether someone is guilty or innocent?

[…] Until recently, such topics would have been out of the reach of cognitive neuroscience for lack of methods; today, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows researchers to watch the brain “in action” as normal human participants make decisions about responsibility and punishment.