Why Suspects Confess

Interrogation Setting

In any discussion concerning interrogation, it is necessary to include a review of the surroundings where a suspect is to be interrogated. Because there is a general desire to maintain personal integrity before family members and peer groups, suspects should be removed from familiar surroundings and taken to a location that has an atmosphere more conducive to cooperativeness and truthfulness.5 The primary psychological factor contributing to successful interrogations is privacy– being totally alone with suspects.6 This privacy prompts suspects to feel willing to unload the burden of guilt.7 The interrogation site should isolate the suspect so that only the interrogator is present. The suspect’s thoughts and responses should be free from all outside distractions or stimuli.

The interrogation setting also plays an important part in obtaining confessions. The surroundings should reduce suspect fears and contribute to the inclination to discuss the crime. Because fear is a direct reinforcement for defensive mechanisms (resistance), it is important to erase as many fears as possible.8 Therefore, the interrogation room should establish a business atmosphere as opposed to a police-like atmosphere. While drab, barren interrogation rooms increase fear in suspects, a location that displays an open, you-have-nothing-to fear quality about it can do much to break down interrogation defensiveness, thereby eliminating a major barrier.9 The interrogators tend to disarm the suspects psychologically by placing them in surroundings that are free from any fear-inducing distractions.

Psychological Factors

More than likely, suspects voluntarily accompany investigators, either in response to a police request to answer questions or in an attempt to learn information about the investigation. Once settled in the interrogation room, the interrogators should treat suspects in a civilized manner, no matter how vicious or serious the crime might have been. While they may have feelings of disgust for the suspects, the goal is to obtain a confession, and it is important that personal emotions not be revealed.10

Investigators should also adopt a compassionate attitude and attempt to establish a rapport with suspects. In most cases, suspects commit crimes because they believe that it offers the best solution to their needs at the moment.11 Two rules of thumb to remember are: 1) “There but for the grace of God go I”; and 2) it is important to establish a common level of understanding with the suspects.12 These rules are critical to persuading suspects to be open, forthright, and honest. Suspects should be persuaded to look beyond the investigators’ badges and see, instead, officers who listen without judging. If investigators are able to convince suspects that the key issue is not the crime itself, but what motivated them to commit the crime, they will begin to rationalize or explain their motivating factors. At this stage of the interrogation, investigators are on the brink of having suspects break through remaining defensive barriers to admit involvement in the crime. This is the critical stage of the interrogation process known as the breakthrough.

The Breakthrough

The breakthrough is the point in the interrogation when suspects make an admission, no matter how small.13 In spite of having been advised of certain protections guaranteed by the Constitution, most suspects feel a need to confess. Both hardcore criminals and first-time offenders suffer from the same pangs of conscience.14 This is an indication that their defense mechanisms are diminished, and at this point,the investigators may push through to elicit the remaining elements of a confession.

In order for interrogators to pursue a successful breakthrough, they must recognize and understand certain background factors that are unique to a particular suspect. Many times, criminals exhibit psychological problems that are the result of having come from homes torn by conflict and dissension. Also frequently found in the backgrounds of criminals are parental rejection and inconsistent and severe punishment.15 It is important that investigators see beyond the person sitting before them and realize that past experiences can impact on current behavior. Once interrogators realize that the fear of possible punishment, coupled with the loss of pride in having to admit to committing mistakes, is the basic inhibitor they must overcome in suspects, they will quickly be able to formulate questions and analyze responses that will break through the inhibitors.

Successful Interrogations

Investigators must conduct every interrogation with the belief that suspects, when presented with the proper avenue, will use it to confess their crimes. Research indicates that most guilty persons who confess are, from the outset,looking for the proper opening during the interrogation to communicate their guilt to the interrogators.16

Suspects confess when the internal anxiety caused by their deception outweighs their perceptions of the crime’s consequences.17 In most instances, suspects have magnified, in their minds, both the severity of the crime and the possible repercussions. Interrogators should allay suspect anxiety by putting these fears into perspective. Suspects also make admissions or confessions when they believe that cooperation is the best course of action.18 If they are convinced that officers are prepared to listen to all of the circumstances surrounding the crimes, they will begin to talk. The psychological and physiological pressures that build in a person who has committed a crime are best alleviated by communicating.19 In order to relieve these suppressed pressures, suspects explain the circumstances of their crimes when they confess.

And, finally, suspects confess when interrogators are able to speculate correctly on why the crimes were committed. Suspects want to know ahead of time that interrogators will believe what they have to say and will understand what motivated them to commit the crime.


It is natural for suspects to want to preserve their privacy, civil rights, and liberties. It is also natural for suspects to resist discussing their criminal acts. For these very reasons, however, investigators must develop the skills that enable them to disarm defensive resistors established by suspects during interrogation. Before suspects will confess, they must feel comfortable in their surroundings, and they must have confidence in the interrogators, who should attempt to gain this confidence by listening intently to them and by allowing them to verbalize their accounts of the crimes.

Interrogators who understand what motivates suspects to confess will be better able to formulate effective questions and analyze suspect responses. Obviously, more goes into gaining a confession than is contained in this article. However, if the interrogator fails to understand the motivations of the suspect, other factors impacting on obtaining the confession will be less effective.


  1. Charles E. O’Hara and Gregory L. O’Hara, Fundamentals of Criminal Investigation, 5th ed. rev. (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1988), p.117.
  2. W. E. Renoud, Criminal Investigation Digest (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1981), p. 10.
  3. John J. Horgan, Criminal Investigations, 2d ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1979), p. 78.
  4. Fred E. Inbau, John E. Reid, and Joseph P. Buckley, Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, 3d ed. (Baltimore, MD: Williams & Wilkins, 1986), p.16.
  5. Robert F. Royal and Steven R. Schutt, The Gentle Art of Interviewing and Interrogation: A Professional Manual and Guide (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976), p. 56.
  6. Supra note 4, p. 24.
  7. Charles R. Swanson, Jr., Neil Chamelin, and Leonard Territo, Criminal Investigation, 4th ed. (New York, NY: Random House, 1988), p. 210.
  8. Supra note 5, p. 57.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Supra note 2, p. 12.
  11. Ibid., p. 13.
  12. Ibid., p. 13.
  13. Supra note 5.
  14. Supra note 7.
  15. James C. Coleman, James N. Butcher, and Robert C. Carson, Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life, 7th ed. (Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman and Company,1984), p. 261.
  16. Supra note 7, p. 209.
  17. John Reid and Associates, The Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation (Chicago, IL: Reid & Associates, 1986), p. 44.
  18. Supra note 5, p. 115.
  19. Supra note 7, p. 209.

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