That a person would admit to a crime he didn’t commit seems an improbable occurrence, and yet false confessions are responsible for more than a quarter of the 330 DNA exonerations secured by the Innocence Project to date. In order to reduce the prevalence of false confessions, the Innocence Project and other advocacy groups have urged police departments to videotape interrogations so that juries may later be able to perceive coercive interrogation tactics. While this policy is highly advisable, it seems there’s more to the picture, as research shows that in the wrong circumstances, videotaping confessions may actually harm, rather than help, those who have been pressured into making a false confession.

Last week, the National Science Foundation (NSF) released a video in which Ohio University psychology professor G. Daniel Lassiter explained the importance of camera angles in recorded police interrogations. According to Lassiter, jurors are more likely to mistake a coerced confession for one that is voluntary when the camera is focused on the suspect, with the interrogator off camera or only visible from behind. This is true even if the interrogator is aggressive or threatening in his questioning. The rationale, Lassiter believes, stems from a phenomenon called “illusory causation,” which holds that objects that are the center of attention are “more likely than less conspicuous objects to be judged the originators of a physical event, even when there is no objective basis for such a conclusion.” This means that training cameras on suspects–the current default camera angle–serves to prejudice juries, who attribute a suspect’s words to his own thoughts, rather than coercion on the part of the interrogator.

But there’s a simple fix, Lassiter told NSF. If the camera is moved between the interrogator and suspect so that both are seen in profile, the same interview will leave viewers with a different impression. See for yourself.

Kate Dutcher

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