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Undisciplined: Aghast Confession

Linnaea Mallette,

This week on Undisciplined, we’re talking about the ways in which being innocent of a crime could make someone more likely to confess. And if that sounds like something that might only happen under really extreme circumstances, consider this: in nearly a third of the convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence, the person who was convicted had at some point confessed to the crime.

Kyle Scherr is a professor of psychology at Central Michigan University. For the past decade, he’s been trying to solve the riddle of why people confess to things they haven’t done. His article on false confessions was recently published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Scherr makes the case that confessions are sort of like a Rube Goldberg machine — one thing triggers another, which causes something else, which results in an outcome. And in a lot of cases — a tremendously disconcerting number of cases — the thing that sets everything into motion isn’t the guilt of the person who ultimately confesses. 

Matthew LaPlante has reported on ritual infanticide in Northern Africa, insurgent warfare in the Middle East, the legacy of genocide in Southeast Asia, and gang violence in Central America. But a few years back, something donned on him: Maybe the news doesn't have to be brutally depressing all the time. Today, he balances his continuing work on more heartbreaking subjects by writing books about the intersection of science, human health and society, including the New York Times best-selling Lifespan with geneticist David Sinclair and the Nautilus Award-winning Longevity Plan with cardiologist John Day. His first solo book, Superlative, looks at what scientists are learning by studying organisms that have evolved in record-setting ways, and his is currently at work on another book about embracing the inevitability of human-caused climate change with an optimistic outlook on the future.