Confessions Selected by Consequences: An Operant Analysis of False Confessions and Interrogation Techniques


Documented cases of innocent persons in the United States having confessed to crimes that they did not commit have become commonplace since the emergence of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing as a means for confirming a person’s innocence or guilt. The risk of imprisoning any more innocent individuals on the basis of false confessions warrants a closer look at the contingencies that give rise to this kind of tragedy. Using Skinner’s (1957, Verbal Behavior, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall) and Palmer’s (1991, “A Behavioral Interpretation of Memory,” in L. J. Hayes & P. N. Chase [Eds.], Dialogues on Verbal Behavior [pp. 261–279], Reno, NV: Context Press) analyses of verbal behavior and memory, this article explores how verbal episodes between suspects and law enforcement can culminate in a false admission of guilt. In addition, to try to identify the variables that might lead to high rates of false confessions in the United States, this article examines some of the contingencies under which law enforcement investigations operate. Finally, we provide some recommendations for how the behavior analyst can fulfill the role of an expert witness, how to take into consideration a systemic and cultural perspective, and how to incorporate some technological safeguards and additional precautions when interacting with vulnerable populations.

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Daniele Ortu is funded by the Beatrice H. Barrett Research Endowment, Department of Behavior Analysis, University of North Texas.

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Correspondence to Haven Niland.

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Niland, H., Ortu, D. Confessions Selected by Consequences: An Operant Analysis of False Confessions and Interrogation Techniques. Behav. Soc. Iss. 29, 162–194 (2020).

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  • false confessions
  • mnemonic behavior
  • interrogation
  • coercion
  • intraverbal control
  • verbal behavior