Bluffed by the dealer: Distinguishing false pleas from false confessions
Jason C. Chan
The United States convicts over one million people of felonies each year without affording the resources of a trial. Instead, these convictions are attained in plea bargains. The current research investigated potential differences between pleas and confessions to determine whether new experimental research on plea-bargaining is warranted, or whether the research on false confessions can be extended to pleas as well. Given the exploratory nature of this work, multiple theoretically-relevant variables were measured so that multiple potential differences between pleas and confessions could be explored. The study employed a 2 (innocent or guilty) x 2 (plea or confession) x 2 (evidence-bluff or no-bluff) between-participants design. Participants were recruited for a study described as examining problem solving. Once at the lab, all participants were paired with a confederate posing as another participant. The participant and confederate were asked to complete problems both independently (individual) and together (team). Guilty participants were asked to provide help on one of the individual problems by the confederate. Innocent participants were never asked for help. All participants were later accused of cheating on an individual problem. Participants in confession conditions were then asked to sign a statement admitting guilt. Participants in plea conditions were asked to sign a statement agreeing to work 20 hours in the research lab in exchange for dropping the accusation. Participants in evidence-bluff conditions were told that a video camera recorded the problem-solving phase of the study and could reveal whether cheating actually occurred. The theoretically-relevant individual difference variables did not consistently differentiate pleas from confessions. A hypothesized interaction between the evidence-bluff and plea-confession conditions on acceptance outcomes did not materialize either. Nevertheless, some evidence emerged indicating that pleas and confessions might involve different processes. Specifically, innocent participants gave different reasons for refusing to sign a plea statement than they did for refusing to sign a confession statement. Similarly, the plea and confession conditions prompted guilty participants to provide significantly different reasons for agreeing to sign the statement. In conclusion, the current research provides support for a new line of research on plea-bargaining.