Study: Sleep deprivation may put people at risk for false confessions

Research suggests that sleep deprivation, which can occur during longer interrogations, is one of many factors that may raise the risk of false confessions.

A confession can be one of the most compelling pieces of evidence in a criminal case. Consequently, a false confession can be especially devastating to a wrongly accused person. Sadly, such confessions are more common than many people in Indianapolis realize. According to the Innocence Project, in about one-quarter of the wrongful convictions that have been overturned through DNA testing, the innocent individuals gave false confessions or undertook other self-incriminating actions.

To many people, the thought of giving a confession despite being innocent is difficult to comprehend, especially when the accusations center on serious infractions such as felony sex crimes or violent offenses. However, according to CBS News, a new study suggests that sleep deprivation, which is often a side effect of prolonged interrogations, may significantly enhance the risk of false confessions.

In Indiana, authorities are required to record custodial interrogations, which may reduce the risk of some false confessions being given too much weight. At the same time, in some cases, the existence of this record may make challenging a false confession later difficult.

Inclination to false confessions

The study included 88 participants, who were asked to perform various computer tasks and cognitive testing. The participants were instructed not to press a certain key and told that doing so would delete data from the experiment. At the end of the experiment, the researchers kept one group of participants awake for 24 hours and allowed the other group to get a full night of rest. They then individually accused all of the participants of hitting the key and asked for a signed confession statement.

Troublingly, the participants who were exhausted from staying up all night were over four times more likely to confess than their peers. Half of them ultimately confessed, compared to just 18 percent of the other participants. It's possible that some of these people had actually hit the forbidden key, since researchers didn't monitor the participants' keystrokes. However, the disparity in confession rates suggests that the sleep deprivation played a significant role in many confessions.

Analyzing the findings

It's important to observe that this scenario differed from an arrest and custodial interrogation in many ways. Most notably, the participants didn't face any serious consequences that might have deterred them from confessing, as is the case in offenses ranging from drug crimes to white collar crimes.

However, the researchers note that the participants were in no way forced into giving false confessions. Instead, they were simply asked to anonymously fill out a form and check a box to acknowledge their guilt. The researchers have expressed concern that in a higher-pressure environment, false confessions could occur at even greater rates.

Other risk factors

Sleep deprivation isn't the only variable that can make a person more likely to give a false confession, according to the Innocence Project. All of the following factors can also put a person at risk for wrongful self-incrimination:

  • Mental or physical impairment. People who are intoxicated or temporarily impaired are likelier to give false confessions, as are people with mental disabilities.
  • Coercive tactics. People who have been threatened with violence, harsh sentencing terms or other adverse outcomes may more readily give false confessions.
  • Misunderstanding. People who don't know their legal rights or fully understand the situation, such as juveniles, are also at higher risk for giving false confessions.

Given this risk, anyone accused of a crime in the state may benefit from consulting with an attorney as soon as possible. An attorney may be able to help a person assert his or her innocence and assess legal strategies that don't involve self-incrimination.