Chapter 7: False Confessions

It’s true, over 200 people confessed to the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s young son. False confessions are common, with examples including false confession elicited from Huwe Burton after hours of being threatened and cajoled. More than a quarter of the 365 people exonerated in recent decades by the nonprofit Innocence Project had confessed to their alleged crime.

False confessions are often due to coercion, but they can be caused by false memories. In one case, two sisters gave vivid depictions of their supposed sexual abuse, but a clinical psychologist demonstrated their memories were false. They believed the attacks happened even though they never did.

We are all prone to false memories. These can be slight modifications as our brains fill in details of real events, or complete fabrications. In a famous experiment, scientists doctored images to make it look as if their participants had been in a hot air balloon. Half the participants created false memories about the event – they really believed it had happened.

I’m aware I have at least one false memory: I remember making an important phone call while in my car. It can’t be true because I was alone that day, so would have been driving. I’ve now modified the memory to be walking up the road I used to believe I was driving up. Who knows whether I am right this time.