People Can 'Beat' Guilt Detection Tests

People Can 'Beat' Guilt Detection Tests by Suppressing Incriminating Memories

New research published by an international team of psychologists has shown that people can suppress incriminating memories and thereby avoid detection in brain activity guilt detection tests.

Such tests, which are commercially available in the USA and are used by law enforcement agencies in several countries, including Japan and India, are based on the logic that criminals will have specific memories of their crime stored in their brain. Once presented with reminders of their crime in a guilt detection test, it is assumed that their brain will automatically and uncontrollably recognise these details, with the test recording the brain's 'guilty' response.

However, research by psychologists at the universities of Kent, Magdeburg and Cambridge, and the Medical Research Council, has shown that, contrary to this core assumption, some people can intentionally and voluntarily suppress unwanted memories -- in other words, control their brain activity, thereby abolishing brain activity related to remembering. This was demonstrated through experiments in which people who conducted a mock crime were later tested on their crime recognition while having their electrical brain activity measured. Critically, when asked to suppress their crime memories, a significant proportion of people managed to reduce their brain's recognition response and appear innocent.

This finding has major implications for brain activity guilt detection tests, among the most important being that those using memory detection tests should not assume that brain activity is outside voluntary control, and any conclusions drawn on the basis of these tests need to acknowledge that it might be possible for suspects to intentionally suppress their memories of a crime and evade detection.


Story Source:  Zara M. Bergström, Michael C. Anderson, Marie Buda, Jon S. Simons, Alan Richardson-Klavehn. Intentional retrieval suppression can conceal guilty knowledge in ERP memory detection tests. Biological Psychology, 2013,

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