Never Admit To Anything – Especially if you’re tired

A AW

English law is very different than American law. In the United States a confession is enough for a conviction; in the United Kingdom, any confession must be corroborated by hard evidence. That’s why, in the United States, the land of the free, a staggering 25% of wrongful convictions are said to have been made because of false confessions.

In the US, investigators have been known to deprive suspects of sleep while they carry out their investigations, unlike in the UK, where such practices are illegal under the Police And Criminal Evidence Act (PACE.)

Now, a study carried out by Elizabeth Loftus and her team at the University of California, Irvine, have found a link between tiredness and false confessions. [Elizabeth Loftus is one of the world’s most highly respected psychologists.]

The researchers found that people are more likely to own up to something they didn’t do if they’ve been deprived of sleep than those who are fully rested. This has obvious parallels with fringe religions like the Moonies, who use sleep deprivation as a tool to convert prospective recruits in order to divest them of their life savings and sometimes their wives and daughters.

Elizabeth Loftus’ study examined whether the likelihood of a false confession is increased by sleep deprivation, because sleep deprivation is thought to interfere with the ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s actions.

As is traditional on these occasions, a group of 88 undergraduates was recruited and over two sessions held a week apart, they were asked to complete some simple tasks on the computer. They were repeatedly given warnings against pressing the ‘ESCAPE’ key because pressing that key would result in the loss of data.

On the night of the second session, half the group were allowed to sleep for eight hours while the other half of the group stayed awake all night. In the morning, all the volunteers were asked to sign a statement falsely alleging they had pressed the ‘escape’ key during the first session.

After a single request, the statement was signed by 18% of the students who had had a proper night’s sleep. Of the students who had had no sleep, a staggering 50% signed the statement.

Regardless of the experimental conditions, the odds of confessing were four and a half times greater for participants who reported high levels of tiredness relative to participants who reported low to medium levels of tiredness.

Elizabeth Loftus and her team believe that sleep deprivation increases the odds of obtaining a false confession because it impairs complex decision making abilities, specifically, the ability to anticipate risks and consequences. It also inhibits behavioural impulses.

According to Professor Loftus, the findings suggest sleep deprivation may compromise the reliability of evidence obtained during interrogations and could put innocent individuals at risk of wrongful conviction. In this, common sense must lead one to suspect that they are entirely correct.

The research team have recommended that interrogators assess suspect’s sleep patterns for the days preceding the interrogation and measure suspect’s levels of tiredness before beginning any interrogation. There is an obvious problem with that recommendation in that suspects may claim to be tired in order to delay the inevitable questioning. This could give a guilty party the time and opportunity to finesse their defence and lengthy detention may act as a warning to possible accomplices. [In the UK suspects must be charged within 48 hours or released, unless their further detention is authorised by a magistrate.]

A false admission of wrongdoing would have disastrous consequences for the innocent, and especially in a legal system already subject to miscarriages of justice.

Professor Loftus is world renowned for her work on false memory. It will be interesting to see if she has established any connection between sleep deprivation and the malleability of memory. I plan to ask her when I meet her in London in 2017.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.