Chris Watts: The Psychology Behind a Chilling Legal Confession

Published on November 21, 2019

Earlier this week, convicted killer, Chris Watts, received three-consecutive life-sentences after the puzzling and brutal murder of his wife, two children, and unborn son last year.

The Timeline

Last year, the public learned about the Watts family–a happy and healthy family who posted selfies of themselves together, regularly on social media.

Or so the world thought.

The news came to a complete surprise to those who knew the couple. On its face, their relationship seemed perfect, but as the world and law enforcement quickly discovered, this was far from the truth.

In August of 2018, Chris strangled his pregnant wife, Shanann Watts, 34, and smothered his two daughters, Celeste, 3, and Bella, 4. At the time, authorities didn’t know that he had already disposed of their bodies at a nearby oil site.

That same day, police arrived at Watts’ residence after a friend reported Shanann missing. The following day, a state-wide search began for Shanann , Celeste, and Bella.

As the investigation began, Chris immediately took to a local TV station, displaying serious signs of concern for his family’s whereabouts and pleading for the return of his wife and two daughters.

Just two days after the report, August 15 to be exact, Chris was called in for questioning by the Frederick Police Department. But what authorities weren’t expecting was that he would be admitting to killing his wife in order to protect their two daughters from harm.

He was immediately placed under arrest. If this wasn’t weird enough already, it wasn’t until February of this year that Chris finally admitted to killing Celeste and Bella. His confession came only after the police revealed his failing of a polygraph test, imposing several psychological techniques.  

On August 21, 2019, Chris learned the charges against him, and eventually plead guilty to all charges.

Earlier this week, Chris received three consecutive life-sentences for his conduct.

The Psychology Behind Watt’s Confession

As gruesome as this story is, what’s even more interesting is his confession behind it. For someone who was 100% guilty, Watts confessed to the crimes with considerable ease.

While in custody, the police interrogators utilized multiple psychological techniques to smooth him into his confession.

Location, Location, Location

When he was first called in for questioning, the interrogator purposely sat in between Watts and the door. Although at this point Watts was free to leave at any time, this technique imposed a subtle subliminal message letting Watts know that the only way out of that room was to cooperate and answer all of the interrogator’s line of questioning.

The purpose of this helps increase the mental pressure and stress on the interrogatee, allowing for the officer to notice certain, subtle movements from Watts during questioning.

As soon as the line of questioning began, and continuing thereon, Watts continuously referred to his wife and kids as “them” and “those kids,” rather than humanizing them by their names. This type of response is usually a subconscious mannerism where an individual attempts to distance themselves from the crime(s). And here, that’s exactly what Watts was doing when he was referring to his wife as “them” or “her.”

Direct Confrontation

After Watts admitted that he and his wife were experiencing martial issues, the officer decided to make his first direct confrontation towards him. The officer stated that Watts could be responsible for his wife and children’s disappearance by implying that it was suspicious that the day his wife and kids go missing, ironically was the same day the two have a heated argument.

An innocent person would become confrontational. Meaning they would ask why the officer is asking that or asking what they mean by that question. Watts then responded by saying that he acknowledges that it looked suspicious but he would “never” do something like this. He never actually became confrontational with the officer.

The “Pause Technique”

The officer then utilized the “Pause Technique” after listening to Watt’s answer. Remaining silent but keeping eye contact, the officer is able to read every motion and movement Watts exhibits, giving him a subtle queue that Watts’ answer was insufficient.

Ultimately, this awkward moment of silence forces Watts to start talking, rambling, and re-emphasizing his innocence, over and over.

“But why should I believe you?” the officer would ask Watts. Another direct confrontation. Based off court documents and what’s been readily made available to the public, Watts never questioned why he was being interrogated or identified as a suspect. He only continued to ramble on as to how he was a calm and non-argumentative person and he could never think about doing something of this nature.

But here’s where things get even weirder.

When asked if he was willing to submit to a polygraph, Watts consented.

Why though?

A polygraph test, or lie detector test as it is commonly referred to, is a device or procedure in which several physiological indicators are measured and recorded. These indicators include, but aren’t limited to blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity. While a person is undergoing a line of questioning, their physiological indicators are measured as they answer. The purpose of which is to correlate the two with telling lies.

However, courts are hesitant to use results from polygraphs as evidence, as these tests are often unreliable indicators because the very factors they measure are also factors of nerves, excitement, and anxiety–basically emotions we all experience daily. However, the legal admissibility of such a test is not universal in all criminal-cases. It is important to know whether your state recognizes the admissibility of such tests into evidence, or whether they require the stipulation of both parties.

Back to Watts’ polygraph test, the individual administering the test continued to use the “IF” line of questioning, specifically phrasing questions along the line of:

If he had nothing to do with this, then [they] would find that out with the polygraph test. Disguised as reassurance, the physiological pressures embedded within her questions were intended to increase the odds of obtaining a confession from Watts.

Before the test begins, she further increased pressure on Watts to obtain a confession. She asked him how would anyone make someone disappear through murder? The idea here is that a guilty person would not mention the way of which they actually murdered someone.

He responded by listing off methods on how someone could murder someone, but was cautious not to mention how he actually murdered his wife and kids.

After the polygraph results came back, the polygrapher returned to the room with the initial interrogating officer. They immediately told Watts he did not pass.

“The Social Exchange” Technique

She then imposed the “Social Exchange” technique, where she tried to convince Christ to give a confession, in exchange for a psychological benefit.

Here, she said that holding something guilty in of this degree can make him “physically sick.” And releasing that will make him feel much better.

Under immense psychological pressure, Watts then requested to see his dad. In exchange for allowing Chris to see his dad, the officers asked that Watts tell his dad everything that happened, to which he agreed.

Once his dad entered the room, Watts eventually told his dad that it was his wife who was hurting the kids, and he had to kill her in order to save his daughters.

Only later did we come to find out that his “confession” was bogus, with Watts later recanting that story and admitting he killed his wife and two children. But confessing to at least one murder was enough to arrest him.

This winter, Lifetime is releasing its own rendition of the Chris Watts story in Chris Watts: Confessions of a Killer. The new film will premiere on Lifetime on Saturday, January 25, starring Sean Kleier (Ant-Man and the Wasp) as Chris Watts, Ashley Williams (How I Met Your Mother) opposite as Shanann Watts, and Brooke Smith, who portrays CBI agent Tammy Lee.

Jeff Wren is a Staff Writer at Grit Daily. He graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 2018 and currently consults at LexisNexis. He has worked in criminal defense, landlord tenant, real property, copyright, and trademark law. He plans on practicing law on the side specializing in criminal defense and eventually patent law.

Read more

More GD News