McCoy Training Advisors

Evaluating Confessions

Short Report

Evaluating Videotaped

Confessions

Expertise Provides No Defense Against the

Camera-Perspective Effect

G. Daniel Lassiter,1 Shari Seidman Diamond,2,3 Heather C. Schmidt,1 and Jennifer K. Elek1

1Ohio University, 2Northwestern University School of Law, and 3American Bar Foundation, Chicago, Illinois

False confessions extracted during police interrogations have

been linked to the wrongful conviction of innocent people

(Drizin & Leo, 2004; Dwyer, Neufeld, & Scheck, 2000). Many

scientific, legal, and political leaders have called for mandatory

videotaping of custodial interrogations as one solution to this

troubling problem (e.g., Drizin & Reich, 2004). However, the

well-documented phenomenon of illusory causation—the tendency

for people to attribute unwarranted causality to a stimulus

simply because it is more conspicuous than others—suggests

that evaluations of videotaped confessions could be altered by

presumably inconsequential changes in the camera perspective

used at initial recording (McArthur, 1980; Taylor & Fiske,

1978). Indeed, a growing body of research demonstrates that

simulated videotaped confessions recorded with the camera

focused on the suspect—compared with videotapes from other

camera points of view (e.g., focused equally on the suspect and

interrogator)—lead jury-eligible individuals to assess that the

confessions are more voluntary and that the suspects are more

likely to be guilty (Lassiter, 2002; Lassiter, Geers, Munhall,

Handley, & Beers, 2001). Actual criminal interrogations are

usually videotaped with the camera focused on the suspect

(Kassin, 1997), so the implications of these findings are

alarming.

The U.S. Supreme Court has established that criminal defendants

are entitled to a pretrial determination of whether any

confession they gave was voluntary, and that a confession is

properly introduced at trial only if a judge has ruled that it was

given voluntarily (Jackson v. Denno, 1964). Thus, judges play a

critical role in determining what confession evidence juries are

actually allowed to consider. It is important to assess, therefore,

whether the decisions of judges are similarly influenced by

camera perspective. It is possible that their greater knowledge,

experience, and understanding of the law pertaining to confessions

could immunize them against such an effect.

Guthrie, Rachlinski, andWistrich (2002) investigated judges’

susceptibility to various cognitive illusions (e.g., the hindsight

bias) and found that although judges were as susceptible to some

illusions as laypersons, their relative performance with regard to

other illusions was noticeably better. More recently, it has been

shown that judges’ perceptions of a witness’s credibility—in

contrast to those of laypersons—are unaffected by the witness’s

potentially misleading emotional expression (Wessel, Drevland,

Eilertsen, & Magnussen, 2006). Findings such as these raise the

possibility that judicial experience and expertise help judges

avoid the influence of camera perspective.

Police interrogators are criminal-justice professionals with

different, but nonetheless relevant, expertise. When conducting

interrogations, veteran law-enforcement officers should be particularly

vigilant about voluntariness, both because a confession

that is not voluntary may indicate that the suspect is not guilty

and because a confession that a court concludes is not voluntary

will be inadmissible. Of course, unlike judges, police interrogators

have no charge to determine the voluntariness of a confession

before jurors see it. Nevertheless, their training and

experience may also lead them to be less affected by camera

perspective than laypersons are. Consistent with this possibility,

recent research found that some highly experienced police officers

viewing videotaped interrogations achieved higher accuracy

rates with regard to detecting suspects’ lies than is typically

found for nonprofessionals (Mann, Vrij, & Bull, 2004).

To examine whether pertinent expertise can mitigate the

camera-perspective effect, we enlisted 21 judges who had

previously served as both prosecutors and criminal defense

Address correspondence to G. Daniel Lassiter, Department of Psychology,

Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701, e-mail: lassiter@ohio.

edu.

PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE

224 Copyright r 2007 Association for Psychological Science Volume 18—Number 3

attorneys and 24 law-enforcement officers with extensive

experience conducting interrogations to view a videotaped mock

confession.1 Participants were presented with a suspect-focus,

detective-focus, or equal-focus version of the confession

(assignment to condition was random) and asked to assess its

voluntariness on a 9-point scale (1 5 voluntary, 9 5 coerced).

A 2 (expert type)  3 (camera perspective) analysis of

variance revealed that evaluations of the voluntariness of the

confession were significantly altered by camera perspective,

F(2, 39)53.46, p < .05, Zp

25.15 (see Table 1 for means). The

main effect of expert type and the two-way interaction were not

significant (Fs < 1). Regardless of expert type, the suspectfocus

version of the confession led to assessments of greater

voluntariness than did the equal-focus and detective-focus

versions, F(1, 39) 5 4.80, prep 5 .93, d 5 0.70. Ratings of

the latter two versions did not differ significantly, t(39) 5 1.06,

prep 5 .77, d 5 0.34.2

These data reveal that relevant expertise provides no defense

against the influence of camera perspective. Theoretically

speaking, this result is consistent with the view that the cameraperspective

effect, and illusory causation more generally, are

perceptually mediated, rather than a consequence of flawed

higher-order reasoning processes (Lassiter, Geers, Munhall,

Ploutz-Snyder, & Breitenbecher, 2002; Ratcliff, Lassiter,

Schmidt, & Snyder, 2006). Practically speaking, the present

findings make it clear that a research-based policy on how police

interrogations should be videotaped is urgently needed.

Prior studies with laypersons have found that videotaped

confessions in which the camera captured both the suspect and

the interrogator (i.e., an equal-focus perspective) generated

evaluations that were comparable to those based on more traditional

presentation formats, that is, audiotapes and transcripts

(Lassiter et al., 2001). These findings indicate that the advantages

associated with videotaping (i.e., more complete documentation

of interrogations) can be obtained without introducing

bias if an equal-focus camera perspective becomes the standard

for recording police interrogations. New Zealand has already

adopted such a policy, and in a survey of judges who presided

over cases involving equal-focus videotaping of interrogations,

the judges reported that videotaping improved procedures for

both the prosecution and the defense (Lassiter, Ratcliff,Ware, &

Irvin, 2006).

Acknowledgments—This work was supported by National

Science Foundation Grant SES-0453302 to G.D.L. Jennifer

Ratcliff and Kim Lassiter provided helpful comments on an

earlier draft.

REFERENCES

Drizin, S.A., & Leo, R.A. (2004). The problem of false confessions

in the post-DNA world. North Carolina Law Review, 82, 891–

1007.

Drizin, S.A., & Reich, M.J. (2004). Heeding the lessons of history: The

need for mandatory recording of police interrogations to accurately

assess the reliability and voluntariness of confessions.

Drake Law Review, 52, 619–646.

Dwyer, J., Neufeld, P., & Scheck, B. (2000). Actual innocence: Five

days to execution and other dispatches from the wrongly convicted.

New York: Doubleday.

Guthrie, C., Rachlinski, J.J., & Wistrich, A.J. (2002). Judging by

heuristic: Cognitive illusions in judicial decision making. Judicature,

86, 44–50.

Jackson v. Denno, 378 U.S. 368 (1964).

Kassin, S.M. (1997). The psychology of confession evidence. American

Psychologist, 52, 221–233.

Kassin, S.M. (2005). On the psychology of confessions: Does innocence

put innocents at risk? American Psychologist, 60, 215–228.

Lassiter, G.D. (2002). Illusory causation in the courtroom. Current

Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 204–208.

Lassiter, G.D., Geers, A.L., Munhall, P.J., Handley, I.M., & Beers, M.J.

(2001). Videotaped confessions: Is guilt in the eye of the camera?

In M.P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology

(Vol. 33, pp. 189–254). New York: Academic Press.

Lassiter, G.D., Geers, A.L., Munhall, P.J., Ploutz-Snyder, R.J., &

Breitenbecher, D.L. (2002). Illusory causation: Why it occurs.

Psychological Science, 13, 299–304.

Lassiter, G.D., Ratcliff, J.J., Ware, L.J., & Irvin, C.R. (2006). Videotaped

confessions: Panacea or Pandora’s box? Law & Policy,

28, 192–210.

Mann, S., Vrij, A., & Bull, R. (2004). Detecting true lies: Police officers’

ability to detect suspects’ lies. Journal of Applied Psychology,

89, 137–149.

McArthur, L.Z. (1980). Illusory causation and illusory correlation: Two

epistemological accounts. Personality and Social Psychology

Bulletin, 6, 507–519.

TABLE 1

Assessments of the Confession’s Voluntariness as a Function of

Camera Perspective and Expert Type

Expert type

Camera perspective

Suspect focus Equal focus Detective focus

Judges 3.17 (83) 4.33 (67) 5.56 (43)

Police 2.50 (100) 3.75 (67) 4.63 (43)

Note. Lower numbers indicate that the confession was considered to be more

voluntary (range 5 1–9). Parenthetical entries are the percentage of participants

in each cell who indicated the confession was voluntary, as determined

by dichotomizing the rating scale, so that ratings of 1 through 4 were recoded

as ‘‘voluntary’’ and ratings of 6 through 9 were recoded as ‘‘coerced’’ (the 2

judges and 3 police who chose a rating of 5, the scale’s midpoint, were excluded

from this analysis).

1Kassin (2005) identified police, prosecutors, judges, and juries as the key

decision makers whose task it is to assess suspects’ incriminating statements.

Because the judges in our sample had previous experience as prosecutors, the

present study effectively captures the expertise of the three groups of professionals

considered most relevant to evaluating confession evidence.

2An identical pattern emerged when participants’ scale ratings were recoded

and analyzed as if judgments had been dichotomous, Fisher’s exact test, prep 5

.97, d 5 1.01 (see Table 1).

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G.D. Lassiter et al.

Ratcliff, J.J., Lassiter, G.D., Schmidt, H.C., & Snyder, C.J. (2006).

Camera perspective bias in videotaped confessions: Experimental

evidence of its perceptual basis. Journal of Experimental

Psychology: Applied, 12, 197–206.

Taylor, S.E., & Fiske, S.T. (1978). Salience, attention, and attribution:

Top of the head phenomena. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in

experimental social psychology (Vol. 11, pp. 249–288). New York:

Academic Press.

Wessel, E., Drevland, G.C.B., Eilertsen, D.E., & Magnussen, S. (2006).

Credibility of the emotional witness: A study of ratings by court

judges. Law and Human Behavior, 30, 221–230.

(RECEIVED 5/12/06; ACCEPTED 7/31/06;

FINAL MATERIALS RECEIVED 8/31/06)

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