False memory syndrome

I recently came across a fascinating article entitled “The Reykjavik Confessions: The mystery of why six people admitted roles in two murders – when they couldn’t remember anything about the crimes.” One of my facebook friends described this piece thusly:

“If you like Nordic noir, it doesn’t come much more Nordic or more noir than this. But it turns out to be a story of what interrogations can do to people, and why they may end up admitting to crimes they never committed.”

This article resonated strongly with me, due to two experiences in the days of my youth. I still think of them with discomfort.

Polygraph simpson

When I first moved out West from the East Coast, I stayed with my grandmother before starting university. My family knew I was interested in collecting coins; at some point a keychain which featured a Morgan dollar went missing from an aunt’s house and I was immediately accused of having taken it. The pressure from family members was so intense that I, at the tender and callow age of 19 actually began to wonder if I had committed a crime and suppressed the memory. Despite my sincere protestations, my grandmother used every possible emotional club in her arsenal, and she had heavy weaponry, to get me to confess to having taken this trinket. Naturally, I knew nothing about it. Some time later, the item in question turned up in the pocket of a nail apron used by my uncle (who by this time had passed away.) My aunt was profuse in her apologies, but my grandmother never even mentioned it again, going to her grave with the idea that I was still somehow guilty of a crime that had never been committed; nary the hint of acknowledgement or apology.

The second tale involved my work for a restaurant several years later. I was working for a concern run by a partnership of two gentlemen (term used very loosely, mind you.) Despite being in a management position I was never entrusted with any financial responsibility or authority, but at some point it was announced that some money had gone missing from a safe in the restaurant (and at no time was I ever privy to the combination thereof.) I was told that everyone on the staff was being asked to take a lie detector test at the local police station. Despite the fact that this was a blatant lie, as I found out later – I was the only one who ever had to go down – I remember the experience with such distaste that it has remained with me forever after. I was “interviewed” by a lieutenant of the local police force; I’m tempted to mention his name because he was an asshole, but he’s dead now and de mortuis nil nisi bonum and all that.

I got asked all sorts of embarrassing, probing questions, many of which had nothing to do with the event they were investigating. There is no more unsettling feeling than to sit and be told that you’re a criminal, and that they know you’re a criminal, and that they’re going to find the truth no matter what it takes… when you know for certain that you are innocent and uninvolved. At the end of the procedure, Lieutenant Douchebag told me that my results were “highly deceptive,” and I went away wondering if I was going to be thrown in the clink for something I had neither done nor even ever considered. But I got a small taste of what it must be like to be interrogated in this way; I cannot imagine the emotional distress felt by the people in the above-mentioned article. A lot of them were clearly petty criminals, but they didn’t deserve to have their lives scarred and/or ruined for something they never did.

Relevant: Do Lie Detectors Work?

The lie detector can be considered a modern variant of the old technique of trial by ordeal. A suspected witch was thrown into a raging river on the premise that if she floated she was harnessing demonic powers.

The takeaway for me is that it is far too easy to put people in a situation where they feel vulnerable and powerless, and hammer away at them until they begin to doubt things they know for certain and accept things that they know nothing about. I suspect that with training, one could inoculate oneself against such techniques to a certain extent, but really, what’s the payoff for the average person who will not find themselves in such a position? Whatever the case, it’s disturbing.

The Old Wolf has spoken. Maybe.