The Anatomy of a Confession: An Examination of Verbal and Nonverbal Cues Surrounding a Confession

Norah E. Dunbar, Quinten S. Bernhold, Matthew L. Jensen, Judee K Burgoon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Many deception studies focus on interviewees who do not confess to wrongdoing; confessions are often treated as anomalies and ignored. This study begins to explore confessions by using a mixed-methods secondary analysis of verbal and nonverbal cues that accompany confessions about wrongdoing. Confederates encouraged participants to cheat for extra money during a trivia game, and expert interviewers subsequently interrogated participants about their behavior. Using the relational topoi as our guiding lens, we examined changes in participants’ nonverbal behavior from before their confession to after their confession. Compared to the period leading up to their confession, participants became more pleasant and dominant but less synchronized with the interviewer after their confession. Qualitative analysis of the verbal tactics used by interviewers to elicit confessions revealed that one interviewer was more likely than the other three interviewers to offer diffusion of responsibility which subsequently prompted the participant to confess and lead to a high detection success rate. Practical implications of these findings are considered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)423-443
Number of pages21
JournalWestern Journal of Communication
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 8 2019


  • Confessions
  • Deception
  • Interrogations
  • Relational Topoi

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Language and Linguistics


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