Suspects with low IQs are particularly vulnerable to the pressures of police interrogation: They are less likely to understand the charges against them and the consequences of professing guilt. One of the suspects in the Central Park attack had an IQ of 87; another was aged 16 with a second-grade reading level.
But intelligence is by no means the decisive factor. Suspects with compliant or suggestible personalities and anxiety disorders may be hard-pressed to withstand an interrogation, according to Gisli Gudjonsson, Ph.D., a professor of forensic psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. Gudjonsson's suggestibility scale is used by courts around the world to evaluate self-incriminating statements. But he cautions against seeking only personality-driven explanations for confessions: "A drug addict may not be particularly suggestible but may have a strong desire to get back out on the street."
Self-incriminating statements are often the result of a kind of cost-benefit analysis. "False confession is an escape hatch. It becomes rational under the circumstances," says Saul Kassin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Williams College in Massachusetts. The most common explanation given after the fact is that suspects "just wanted to go home."
This often indicates an inability to appreciate the consequences of a confession, a situation that police cultivate by communicating that a confession will be rewarded with lenient sentencing. Police may also offer mitigating factors—the crime was unintentional; the suspect was provoked.
The circumstances of interrogation are crucial. "Everybody has a breaking point. Nobody confesses falsely in an hour," says Kassin. The suspects in the Central Park case each spent between 14 and 30 hours under interrogation.
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