Sleep deprivation: one reason people give false confessions

April 2017

Innocent people frequently confess to crimes they never committed, and false confessions are, in fact, responsible for 25 percent of exonerations resulting from DNA evidence, according to an essay in Time featuring Psychology and Social Behavior Professor Beth Loftus.

A false confession often starts with police officers presuming guilt, then seeking to detect signs in the suspect's demeanor and voice. Then, they coerce the subject, sometimes with lies about evidence against the suspect. Finally, the police prompt a detailed confession by asking leading questions or showing the suspect crime scene photos.

Children and people with certain personalities are especially vulnerable. So too are the sleep-deprived, according to research done by a team including Loftus. In the study, 50 percent college students deprived of sleep signed a statement falsely admitting to wrongdoing a week earlier. Only 18 percent of rested participants signed the statement. After being urged to sign the statement, 68 percent of sleep-deprived students falsely admitted to the wrongdoing, while 39 percent of rested participants did so.

False confessions need to be better understood -- and prevented. "Not only do the innocent suffer (potentially for years in prison), but the guilty remain free to commit more crimes," the essay says.

Read the Time essay.