'A gentle challenge can lead to a distrust of memory in a vulnerable person'

Professor Gisli Gudjonsson was working on a small case in Reykjavik as a detective in the early 70s. He was convinced that the man he was interrogating had stolen a purse. Gudjonsson told the man that he thought he was a thief. Eventually, under pressure from Gudjonsson, the man admitted to stealing the purse. Shortly after the thief’s admission, it transpired that no purse had in fact been stolen. Gudjonsson was puzzled. Why had the thief been so convinced of his guilt? Gudjonsson’s interest was piqued and so began a lifelong obsession with false confessions and memory distrust, leading to the introduction of the term Memory Distrust Syndrome as a general description of the phenomenon. 

Over the course of the last 30 years, Gudjonsson’s pioneering work has influenced the way police conduct their investigations worldwide.  He is particularly concerned about the way in which ‘a gentle challenge can lead to a distrust of memory in a vulnerable person after genuine failure to recollect the material event and uncritical acceptance of a false allegation’. In other words, a person in a position of vulnerability can inadvertently appropriate someone else’s suggestion as their own memory. And because there is such a great emphasis placed on confession in legal practice, someone can implicate themselves in a crime simply because the high intensity of an interrogation and their own suggestibility combine to muddle their recollection of an event. 

Gudjonsson has proven that presumptive questioning and solitary confinement lead to a vulnerability to memory distrust. It was his work in this field which laid the foundations for the convictions of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four being overturned and it is these findings on false memory which, according to Gudjonsson, were precisely at play in the interrogations in the wake of the disappearances of Gudmundur and Geirfinnur. 

In order to combat the occurrence of Memory Distrust Syndrome there have been some important changes in interviewing style in police investigations, both in countries like Iceland, and especially here in the UK, where Gisli wrote the manual every police officer must study. However, authorities in the US have been much less responsive that those in the UK in addressing issues associated with negative aspects of deceptive police interview techniques.

Andy Glynne, Producer