Sleep deprivation may contribute to false confessions, study finds

Research suggests sleep deprivation can make people significantly more likely to give false confessions, potentially due to its mentally impairing effects.

To many people in Peoria, the thought of giving a false confession in response to unfounded criminal accusations may be incomprehensible. However, according to the Innocence Project, more than one-quarter of people who have been exonerated of state or federal criminal charges based on DNA evidence gave false confessions or otherwise incriminated themselves. These confessions may play a role in even more uncaught wrongful convictions.

The reasons that people give false confessions are often complex. However, recent research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that sleep deprivation, which is a common factor during many police interrogations, may predispose people to give these damaging confessions.

Alarming false confession rates

During the study, 88 student participants were instructed to complete computer tasks over two sessions. The researchers warned the students to avoid pressing the escape key, as this would delete the data from the experiment. After the second session, some participants were kept awake all night, while the others were allowed a full night of sleep. The following morning, the researchers accused the participants of pressing the escape key and asked them to sign written confessions.

Troublingly, false confession rates were much higher among the sleep-deprived participants. Just 18 percent of the participants who had slept a full night gave confessions. In contrast, half of the innocent but sleep-deprived participants admitted to pressing the escape key.

Explaining the findings

Sleep deprivation may put people at risk for false confessions for a few reasons. The Innocence Project notes that false confessions frequently involve one or more of the following factors:

  • Failure to understand the situation
  • Mental impairment or intoxication
  • Other factors that diminish physical or mental capacity

As The Washington Post reports, sleep deprivation can cause all of these adverse effects. People who are exhausted may experience memory problems, irrational thoughts and even hallucinations. As a result, they may think falsely confessing is the best option or even start questioning their own innocence. The impacts of sleep deprivation may be especially significant for people who suffer from mental illnesses and juveniles, who are already at high risk for making false confessions.

Implications for the accused

These findings suggest that many people may be in danger of giving false confessions. According to The New York Times, over one out of six interrogations occur during normal sleep hours, between 12 a.m. and 8 a.m. Anecdotal evidence also indicates that the risk of sleep-deprived false confessions is not trivial, even when people stand accused of serious infractions, such as domestic assault or battery, drug crimes and weapons offenses.

Per The Washington Post, there are numerous documented instances of people confessing to serious crimes after being kept awake and interrogated for lengthy periods of time. For example, in two separate cases here in Illinois, wrongly accused fathers falsely admitted to sexually assaulting and murdering their own daughters after prolonged interrogations. Fortunately, in these cases, both men were eventually cleared based on DNA evidence.

Avoiding false confessions

To avoid making disadvantageous decisions such as giving a false confession, people who have been accused of any criminal activity may benefit from consulting with an attorney. An attorney may be able to help a person fully understand the consequences of falsely confessing and explore alternative courses of action.