True False Confessions

Surveillance videoWould you admit guilt for something you didn’t do, just because someone accused you? What if they told you they had video?

In a recently published Applied Cognitive Psychology study, working with a large group of people, all of whom had done nothing wrong, 100% admitted guilt when told there was video evidence of them stealing – or were shown video doctored to make it look like they had stolen. 87% confessed as soon as asked, the remaining 13% waited for a second request – even though each and every one of them knew they hadn’t stolen a thing.

Of people told instead that the partner sitting right next to them had done the stealing, after viewing an altered video,a full 50% signed a statement describing how they had seen the accused partner stealing – even though it had never happened. Some even inserted additional details not shown in the video.

In times when children readily edit video on their computers, the implications are somewhat staggering. But as I puzzled about what else the study’s design might allow it to imply (thanks to David DiSalvo‘s description at NeuroNarrative), my mind headed off in a completely different direction.

Could executive leaders, facing difficult times, inadvertently trigger similar responses by falsely accusing team members of performance lapses, errors, or bad decisions that are the responsibility of others – or of actions that may not have happened at all. This could explain some who seem to have learned the wrong lessons or formed off-base opinions of their team members. It could also help to explain the paralysis some managers seem to inspire in their direct reports, regardless of who is cycling through.

What does your experience say? Have you seen co-workers admitting to bad behavior that wasn’t their own?