Sleep deprivation linked to false confessions

February 8, 2016
The odds of signing a false confession were 4.5 times higher for participants who had been awake for 24 hours than for those who had slept eight hours the night before, found a study led by Michigan State University's Kimberly Fenn. Credit: Michigan State University

Sleep-deprived people are much more likely to sign false confessions than rested individuals, according to a groundbreaking study that has important implications for police interrogation practices.

The odds of signing a false confession were 4.5 times higher for participants who had been awake for 24 hours than for those who had slept eight hours the night before.

Led by Kimberly M. Fenn, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, the study is slated to be published the week of Feb. 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This is the first direct evidence that sleep deprivation increases the likelihood that a person will falsely confess to wrongdoing that never occurred," said Fenn. "It's a crucial first step toward understanding the role of sleep deprivation in false confessions and, in turn, raises complex questions about the use of sleep deprivation in the interrogation of innocent and guilty suspects."

False confessions in the United States are thought to account for 15 percent-25 percent of wrongful convictions. And past research has indicated that the interrogation of unrested, possibly sleep-deprived suspects is commonplace.

For the study, conducted in Fenn's Sleep and Learning Lab, 88 participants completed various computer activities and a cognitive test during several laboratory sessions over a weeklong period. Participants were given several warnings not to hit the "escape" key because "this could cause the computer to lose valuable data." Participants were monitored during the tasks.

On the final day of the experiment, half of the participants slept for eight hours while the other half stayed awake overnight. The next morning before leaving the lab, each participant was shown a statement summarizing his or her activities and falsely alleging the participant had pressed the escape key. Participants were asked to sign the statement, check a box confirming its accuracy and sign their name.

The results were striking: 50 percent of sleep-deprived participants signed the false confession, while only 18 percent of rested participants signed it.

Further, had a significant effect on participants who scored lower on the Cognitive Reflection Test, which is related to intelligence. Those were much more likely to sign the false confession.

To protect against the harmful effects of , Fenn and her co-authors recommend interrogations be videotaped, giving judges, attorneys and jurors added insight into a suspect's psychological state.

Suspects also can be given a quick and easy test to determine sleepiness prior to an interrogation. Participants in the MSU-led study were given the publicly available Stanford Sleepiness Scale; those who indicated a higher level of sleepiness were significantly more likely to sign the false confession.

"A false admission of wrongdoing can have disastrous consequences in a legal system already fraught with miscarriages of justice," the authors conclude. "We are hopeful that our study is the first of many to uncover the sleep-related factors that influence processes related to confession."

Explore further: Researchers examine how stress may lead to false confessions

More information: Sleep deprivation and false confessions, PNAS, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1521518113

Related Stories

Researchers examine how stress may lead to false confessions

September 12, 2013

Imagine if you were wrongly accused of a crime. Would you be stressed? Anyone would be, but Iowa State University researchers found the innocent are often less stressed than the guilty. And that could put them at greater ...

Missing sleep may hurt your memory

July 21, 2014

Lack of sleep, already considered a public health epidemic, can also lead to errors in memory, finds a new study by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of California, Irvine.

Recommended for you

Young children learn to take turns for mutual gain

June 21, 2016

It takes children until they are about 5 years old to learn to take turns with others, while the social skill seems to elude chimpanzees, according to new findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.