National Opinion Research Center. (1997). A review of the methodology for the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of undergraduate colleges and universities. Retrieved January 15, 2003, from the Washington Monthly Web site: www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/ 2000/norc.html

Thompson, N. (2000, September). Playing with numbers: How U.S. News mismeasures higher education and what we can do about it. Re- trieved January 21, 2003, from the Washington Monthly Web site: www.washingtonmonthly .com/features/2000/0009.thompson.html

Correspondence concerning this comment should be addressed to Paul J. Hanges, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742. E-mail: hanges@psyc.umd.edu

DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.1037

Evolutionary Psychology and False Confession

Jesse M. Bering University of Arkansas

Todd K. Shackelford Florida Atlantic University

Kassin’s (April 2005) review of the psy- chology of false confessions makes a com- pelling argument for the need for legal re- form in police interrogation practices. According to Kassin, innocents oftentimes waive their Miranda rights and their right to counsel because they mistake the invo- cation of these rights as a defense tactic of criminals. As a consequence, when faced with the lengthy, aggressive questioning by police who presume a suspect’s guilt, mis- read naive behavior as cues to guilt, use deceptive tactics concerning evidence, and falsely present commiserative feelings to- ward the suspect, any reasonable person might confess to a crime that he or she did not commit.

Because his work strikes at the heart of the American criminal justice system— its fairness—the value of Kassin’s (2005) empirical points cannot be understated. Here, we offer a complementary model of the psychology of false confession, one that articulates many of Kassin’s insights through the language of evolutionary psy- chology. We argue that false confessions are the result of specific social dynamic events that trigger evolved heuristics of information management that were de- signed to maximize our ancestors’ genetic replicative success.

From an evolutionary perspective, it might seem counterintuitive that individu- als would ever confess, even if they were guilty. Although humans are expert at mak- ing theoretical inferences about unobserv- able mental states, we are not literally mind readers. Knowing this, and knowing that confession guarantees social exposure of transgressions and usually some form of punishment, it seems that the mind would be designed to motivate absolute discretion in response to accusations of wrongdoing.

Yet the urge to confess is real. In previous work (Bering & Shackelford, 2004, in press), we have argued that con- fession is a preemptive strategy against sta- tistically probable social exposure of a moral offense. Anxiety may be the primary affective state that precipitates confession, with confession being the only available recourse that has this positive effect; con- fession should be the default response un- der such conditions and should be difficult to inhibit. When the probability of expo- sure is high (as when there is incontrovert- ible evidence or there are witnesses to the crime), confession might serve to moderate inevitable punishment. In a recent study with inmates of Arkansas penitentiaries, all of whom pled guilty to their offenses, it was found that retrospective “urge to con- fess” feelings were significantly and posi- tively correlated with the number of people who knew that the individual had commit- ted the crime (Bering, Shackelford, & Johnson, 2005).

Kassin (2005) describes several stan- dard police interrogation tactics—includ- ing lying about evidence, witnesses, and/or informants—that may contribute to the production of false confessions. Punish- ment is the product of the group’s belief in the individual’s guilt rather than the veridi- cal truth of the individual’s guilt or inno- cence. If innocents perceive the likelihood of their vindication to be outweighed by the reality of other people’s false belief in their guilt, then false confession may have been an adaptive strategy, particularly in ances- tral environments, in which trial by jury, judicial appeals, or DNA exclusion could not provide exoneration.

Through confession, the individual has available multiple proximate means of achieving ultimate payoffs in genetic-fit- ness terms. Gold and Weiner (2000) showed that when confession occurs with remorse signals (such as those accompany- ing affective guilt), observers are more likely to reason that recidivism is unlikely or that the person has suffered enough through feeling ashamed, thus promoting forgiveness and a reduction in punishment. In the ancestral past, the advantages of

false confession may have therefore over- ridden protestation over suspected guilt; denying one’s guilt, even if one was inno- cent, might have had a more calamitous impact on reproductive success if such pro- tests fell on the ears of group members who held uncompromising false beliefs.

In addition, confession to allies might have led to social aid. Allies may come to an individual’s physical defense when hos- tile in-group members seek retribution; they may speak on behalf of the individual; they may make alternative retributive deals (e.g., proffering scarce resources) that sal- vage the individual’s freedom; or they may blackmail potential punishers, yielding the same salvaging effect. This helps us to understand why false confessions are fre- quently elicited as a result of the minimi- zation tactics described by Kassin (2005) in which interrogators assume the role of con- fidante. Confession can serve as a signal of commitment to others because it reduces the likelihood of defection from a relation- ship (Hong, 1998; Rogers & Holloway, 1993; Shackelford & Buss, 1996). By con- fessing, one becomes at risk for blackmail and will therefore be more complicit in relationships with those who possess sen- sitive information (Schelling, 1960); thus, innocents may find themselves increasingly influenced by authority figures who are slowly priming them with fabricated de- tails, with the ultimate goal being getting them to sign a confession.

Evolutionary psychological metatheory also predicts that people should first seek confidantes who have some stake in their genetic fitness, such as a parent or a mate with whom an individual shares offspring. This is impossible for suspects who have been isolated in interrogation rooms; au- thority figures, however, may parasitize this evolved heuristic by adopting a famil- iar or familial role (e.g., that of a caring father figure for a young suspect), thus increasing the likelihood of false confes- sion. When confessions are made to those who do not hold such stock, it frequently involves conditions of anonymity (as in the Catholic church) or confidentiality (as in clinical therapy), both of which satisfy the urge to confess but are designed to defend against social exposure. Interrogation tac- tics that assume these conditions, such as those that imply a confidential relationship between the suspect and the interrogator (e.g., “it’s just me and you here”), are likely also to evoke confessions.

Kassin’s (2005) review of the psy- chology of confession identifies key inves- tigative practices in the context of which innocence places innocents at risk. An evo- lutionary psychological perspective provides

1037December 2005 ● American Psychologist

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Bering, J. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (2004). The causal role of consciousness: A conceptual addendum to human evolutionary psychology. Review of General Psychology, 8, 227–248.

Bering, J. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (in press). Mental representation and natural selection: The special case of human social evolution. Intellectica.

Bering, J. M., Shackelford, T. K., & Johnson, D. (2005). Confession and contrition: An evolu- tionary account. Manuscript in progress.

Gold, G. J., & Weiner, B. (2000). Remorse, confession, group identity, and expectancies about repeating a transgression. Basic and Ap- plied Social Psychology, 22, 291–300.

Hong, D. S. (1998). Variables related to forma- tion and development of dating relationships. Korean Journal of Social and Personality Psychology, 12, 199–266.

Kassin, S. M. (2005). On the psychology of confessions: Does innocence put innocents at risk? American Psychologist, 60, 215–228.

Rogers, J. C., & Holloway, R. L. (1993). Pro- fessional intimacy: Somewhere between col- legiality and personal intimacy? Family Sys- tems Medicine, 11, 263–270.

Schelling, T. C. (1960). The strategy of conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Shackelford, T. K., & Buss, D. M. (1996). Be- trayal in mateships, friendships, and coali- tions. Personality and Social Psychology Bul- letin, 22, 1151–1164.

Correspondence concerning this comment should be addressed to Jesse M. Bering, Department of Psychology, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR 72701. E-mail: jbering@uark.edu

DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.1038a

Historical Conflict and Incitement Also Provoke the

Journey to Terrorism

Joseph Steiner North East Ohio Health Services

Moghaddam’s (February–March 2005) ar- ticle, which uses the metaphor of a narrow- ing staircase “to provide a more in-depth understanding of terrorism” (p. 161), de- scribes the journey as being provoked by how people perceive of levels of fairness and experience feelings of relative depriva- tion. If the masses perceive injustice and feel deprived and cannot adequately influ- ence the procedures through which such perceptions can improve, some are likely to begin climbing the staircase that eventually

leads to enrollment in terrorist groups. Two factors that also encourage such per- ceptions receive minimal attention in Moghaddam’s article: historical conflict and current organized incitement. The long-running conflict between the West and the larger Islamic world, for example, has spanned hundreds of years. Western culture and Islam have fundamental differ- ences basic to the beliefs of millions of people—differences that many view to be inconsonant.

To say that Islam is incompatible with democ- racy should not be seen as a disparagement of Islam. On the contrary, many Muslims would see it as a compliment because they sincerely believe that their idea of rule by God is superior to that of rule by men which is democracy. (Taheri, 2004)

Incitement has been used frequently to support the continuation of tension and conflict among populations. “All of the ma- jor genocides started with similar kinds of propaganda, and the heads of today’s ter- rorist groups are being filled with such vi- cious material” (Sternberg, 2003, p. 5). Pal- estinian authorities have used TV, radio, political rallies, and official statements to support the “us-versus-them” ideology to which Moghaddam (2005) alludes. De- cades of cultural conflict and purposeful incitement have motivated many to climb Moghaddam’s staircase toward terrorist ac- tivity. “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it” (The Martyr, Imam Hassan el-Banna, quoted in the Cov- enant of the Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas], published August 19, 1988).

Moghaddam’s (2005) third policy rec- ommendation is to educate against categor- ical us-versus-them thinking as a preven- tive strategy. However, in many cases, such a rigid style of categorization already has existed for many years. The challenge is for such education to become pervasive in a society through schools, textbooks, religious institutions, and, most impor- tantly, the home. Until this challenging task is undertaken, the doors to the staircase will remain wide open.


Moghaddam, F. M. (2005). The staircase to ter- rorism: A psychological exploration. Ameri- can Psychologist, 60, 161–169.

Sternberg, R. J. (2003, October). President’s col- umn: Enough of hate! APA Monitor, 34, 5.

Taheri, A. (2004, May 19). Amir Taheri’s re- marks at debate “Islam Is Incompatible With Democracy.” Available from Benador Asso- ciates Web site: http://www.benadorassociates .com/article/4462

Correspondence concerning this comment should be addressed to Joseph Steiner, North East Ohio Health Services, 23210 Chagrin Boulevard, Beachwood, OH 44122. E-mail: jms27@po.cwru .edu

DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.9.1038b

Some Thoughts on the “Staircase to Terrorism”

Freddy A. Paniagua University of Texas Medical Branch

On Moghaddam’s (February–March 2005) “staircase to terrorism,” a person will be- come a terrorist because he or she experi- ences “injustice and the feelings of frustra- tion and shame” on “the ground floor” (p. 162). If this situation does not change on higher floors, particularly on the fourth and fifth floors, this person will realize that terrorism is the only way to have a “dem- ocratic participation in addressing per- ceived justices” (p. 166).

Therefore, the prevention and end of terrorism will be achieved “only by reform- ing conditions on the ground floor” (Moghaddam, 2005, p. 167). A dialogue between leaders in the dominant political system and “those who have climbed the stairway to terrorism” (p. 167) would also help in this context. Moghaddam cites as an example the original Irish Republican Army (IRA) “in Northern Ireland, whose political wing now participates in main- stream politics” (p. 168). Moghaddam con- siders as “naive reliance” (p. 167) current U.S. and international strategies to prevent and end terrorism (e.g., military forces), and he concludes that those strategies “will not end terrorism in the long-term” (p. 168).

People who perceive injustices and unfairness in a given political system may, indeed, try to destroy that system with ter- rorism. But this is political terrorism, not the form of Islamic fundamentalist terror- ism or messianic terrorism directed by Osama bin Laden and Abu Musad al- Zarqawi (Hallett, 2004; Marsella, 2004; White, 2003). In addition to the original IRA, other examples of political terrorist organizations include the Tupamaros in Uruguay and the Chechen separatists in Russia (White, 2003).

A dialogue with political terrorists will be achieved only when their asymmet- ric warfare tactics (e.g., suicide bombing) are no longer effective (White, 2003). This explains why the Tupamaros and the IRA—in 1971 and 1997, respectively— agreed to enter into a dialogue with the dom- inant political system (White, 2003). And

1038 December 2005 ● American Psychologist

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