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Guilty or Not Guilty? It's de-bait-able

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

In an investigation, police officers have a variety of questioning techniques that they may use to elicit information or confessions from a suspect. However, many of these questioning techniques have raised concerns about eliciting false confessions and wrongful convictions.

For example, a police officer might ask a suspect “Is there any reason why we would find your blood on the weapon used to commit the crime?” in order to get the suspect to provide information about being at the scene of the crime. However, this question is permissible even if there is no blood evidence. In that case, it would be a “bait question” which is designed to elicit a specific response from the suspect they are interrogating, usually using non-existent evidence to get incriminating information.

Police might believe bait questions are beneficial to the interrogation because they are likely to elicit incriminating responses, but bait questions can be extremely harmful in the grand scheme of a case. Not only can bait questions elicit false information that might mislead the investigation, they can also be problematic in trial. When jurors view interrogations including bait questions, it can result in memory distortion, causing them to believe the evidence presented in the bait question is actually true. When jurors remember the false evidence that is being presented to them, they are more likely to perceive the suspect as guilty.

In Taking the Bait: Interrogation Questions about Hypothetical Evidence May Inflate Perceptions of Guilt, Crozier and colleagues (2020) were interested in how bait questions influenced memory distortions and juror perceptions of guilt. In a series of three studies, Crozier and colleagues (2020) examined whether quantity of bait questions and the type of bait information included (e.g., linking the suspect to the specific crime location; linking the suspect to an unimportant condition; or accusing the suspect without evidence) influenced perceptions of guilt. They found that any bait questions resulted in higher guilty verdicts. However, the number and type of bait questions did not matter.

These experiments demonstrate that the mere presence of any bait question or accusatory question increased perceptions of guilt. Participants did not distinguish based on type of information presented in the bait question or the number of bait questions. Therefore, the justice system needs to further consider the admissibility of interrogations with bait questions. Arguably, the questions should not be allowed in an interrogation at all. However, if they are, the portion of the interrogation using bait questions should not be shown to the jury as it can lead to memory distortion and unfair prejudice. At the very least, defense attorneys need to be aware of the possible prejudicial impact of this type of information on jurors and attempt to mitigate it. We should take steps to ensure fair and reliable decisions based on accurate and true evidence.

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