NSSR psychologists publish in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

Two different studies from Department of Psychology at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) earlier this year. The first, by post-doctoral fellow and Eugene Lang College alumnus Steven Frenda, illustrates the impact of sleep deprivation in interrogations of suspects. The second, by associate professor Jeremy Ginges, and post-doctoral fellow Hammad Sheikh, examines the connection between religious belief and intergroup relations.

Sleep Deprivation and False Confessions

Frenda is the lead author of Sleep deprivation and false confessions (PNAS, 2016), which finds that sleep-deprived people are far more likely to sign false confessions than those who are rested. Past research has already pointed to sleep deprivation interfering with people’s ability to think clearly, plan actions, and anticipate risk. With this in mind, Frenda believes that “innocent suspects, in particular, really need these skills and abilities intact in order to navigate a stressful interrogation in a way that protects their interests.” This study, according to Frenda, now gives direct evidence to demonstrate the role that sleep deprivation plays in the outcome of intense interrogation.

As the lead investigator, Frenda adapted a procedure that other researchers have used to study false confessions in a laboratory setting: observing participants’ completion of a series of computer tasks. In this case, participants were warned that pressing the Escape key on the keyboard would result in data loss. The following day, researchers asked the participants to sign statements falsely accusing them of having pressed the Escape key. After the first request, 18% of the rested participants and 50% of the sleep deprived participants agreed to sign the statement. After both requests, 39% of the rested participants and 68% of the sleep-deprived participants had signed.

Two short measures included in the study significantly predicted the likelihood of signing the statement: one was a simple self-report measure of sleepiness, and the other was a measure of impulsive decision-making. Frenda says that one implication of this finding is that in real-life scenarios, it may be possible to identify people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation.

Frenda was surprised to discover there was no previous empirical research into the link between sleep deprivation and false confessions. While finishing his Ph.D. at the University of California, Irvine in psychology and social behavior, Frenda published Sleep deprivation and false memories (Psychological Science, 2014). In this work he and his colleagues found that sleep deprivation increased the tendency for subjects to incorporate misleading post-event information into their memories for a crime they witnessed. Frenda described this work as a natural extension of his previous research about false memories, “since both eyewitness errors and false confessions are among leading causes of wrongful convictions in the U.S.”

Frenda suggests that while further research on sleep deprivation is necessary, he joins other researchers and experts who recommend that interrogations be videotaped, so that jurors and courts can make informed decisions about the reliability of any confession evidence. Especially concerning are the “interrogations that occur in the middle of the night, and interrogations that stretch on and on, sometimes for days,” he warned. Frenda, who will continue his research as an assistant professor at California State University, Los Angeles this Fall, hopes that this kind of research will encourage a positive shift in practices within the criminal justice system.

Connections between Religious Believe and Intergroup Relations

Jeremy Ginges, Associate Professor of Psychology, and Hammad Sheikh, a post-doctoral scholar and recent alumnus of the Department of Psychology, published their study, Thinking from God’s perspective decreases biased valuation of the life of a nonbeliever (PNAS, 2016). In their study of Muslim youth growing up within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they looked at the role of religious beliefs in connection with intergroup relations. According to Ginges, “empirical research into the relationship between religious belief and political violence is rare.” In this contribution to the literature on this topic, Ginges and Sheikh suggest that rather than invariably promoting inter-faith violence, religious belief can sometimes promote inter-faith cooperation.

Ginges and Sheikh surveyed 555 Palestinian youth ages 12-18 who responded to a hypothetical moral dilemma that involved the sacrifice of a Palestinian to save others. In this study, they were more equally likely to endorse saving both Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli children when they took the perspective of Allah than when taking their own perspective, suggesting a belief that God encourages equal valuation of the lives of believers and non-believers alike.

Ginges explained, “The outcome is important because the belief that a life of a member of our own groups may be more valuable than the life of a member of other groups is an important precursor of intergroup violence…These findings suggest that beliefs about God may promote more equal valuation of human life regardless of religious identity, encouraging application of universal moral rules to believers and nonbelievers alike.”

The work of Ginges and Sheikh was featured in The Economist in December 2015.

Photo credit: Escape 2/365 by Barney Moss, with additional color editing. Available under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.