When prisoners are tortured or coerced into giving information, they often say anything to get the maltreatment to stop, said panelists at a discussion of the science of interrogations.

The session was one of a series at APA's Annual Convention on the ethics of psychologists' involvement at detainment sites such as Guantanamo Bay.

People who work with terrorism detainees can look to research on interrogations in the criminal justice system, which shows that the more vulnerable an interview subject is, the more likely he or she is to falsely confess, said Mark Costanzo, PhD, chair of the department of psychology at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and an expert on police interrogations. According to a 2004 analysis of 125 proven false confessions published in The North Carolina Law Review, coercion can come from something as simple as the length of the interview, which in a typical interrogation is about two hours, but in false-confession cases averages 16 hours, explained Costanzo.

"Just the length of time that you are in that room greatly increases the risk of false confession," he said.

That may be because uncertainty and anxiety contribute to a need to confess, said Shara Sand, PsyD, an assistant clinical psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York. This agitation may cause a false feeling of guilt or exposure, and confession is a defensive and pre-emptive response, said Sand, citing research conducted by evolutionary and developmental psychologists Jesse M. Bering, PhD, of the University of Arkansas and Todd K. Shackelford, PhD, of Florida Atlantic University in their 2004 article in the Review of General Psychology, (Vol. 8, No. 4, 227-248).

Combining coercive techniques with environmental manipulation, such as sleep deprivation and isolation, may further taint confessions by increasing suggestibility and triggering hallucinations and other psychotic disturbances, she noted.

To get accurate and useful information, interrogators must build relationships with interview subjects, said social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, professor emeritus at Stanford University. As an example, Zimbardo cited research he conducted in 1959 as a graduate student, when he explored why 10 years after using physical force in interrogation was outlawed, police were still able to get confessions from about 80 percent of detainees.

"The reason was very simple," explained Zimbardo. "The police had begun to use very sophisticated psychological, and especially social psychological techniques."

These methods-learned by trial and error in what Zimbardo describes as an "intuitive street psychology"- revolved around the core principle of building personal relationships with the detainees. Often they were able to build that rapport by learning about the interviewee's cultural and family background and using it to establish trust and a connection.

The failure to understand Iraqi prisoners' culture was one of the contributing factors in the military police's failure to get actionable intelligence at Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo believes, and the pressure to get information without the necessary tools paved the way for the violence that occurred, he concluded.


--L. Meyers