Debunking confessions: Kennedy science researcher's paper accepted at national conference

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In her research, Abramowitz looked at how likely subjects were to falsely confess if they believe that “good things happen to good people,” which is known as the “just world belief,” and that people can read more deeply into their thoughts than they actually can. The belief that others can see into your mind is known in psychology as “public self-consciousness.” For example, Abramowitz said, public speakers often believe they look more nervous to audience members than they actually do, because they believe people can see their “inner state.”

Abramowitz conducted an online survey, in which 80 participants were asked a series of questions, such as whether they believe good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. Then Abramowitz gave roughly half of the subjects a scenario in which they were innocent of a crime that police were investigating. The others were given the same scenario, only they were guilty of the crime.

Eight of nine participants who were “innocent,” and who held basic beliefs that good things happen to good people and people can read their thoughts, were willing to cooperate when questioned by police.

Only one out of nine people who were “guilty” were willing to speak with authorities.

It was an important finding, Abramowitz said, because innocent people are often swept up in fast-paced, hard-hitting police investigations. Because innocents are willing to cooperate with authorities –– often naively –– police many times lean on them, at times eliciting false confessions. That, Abramowitz said, was precisely what happened to Amanda Knox, the American exchange student who spent four years in an Italian prison for a murder that Abramowitz believes she did not commit.

Kassin, Abramowitz’s mentor, is a consultant on the Knox case. According to Abramowitz, Knox willingly cooperated with Italian authorities, believing she could help them solve the case. Instead, she became entangled in a complicated legal system that she did not understand. After a successful appeal, she is now free and living in the U.S., but her case is being retried in an Italian appeals court.

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