Lie Detection and a Truthful Society

Margaret Talbot writes in the July 2, 2007 New Yorker, Duped: Can Brain Scans Uncover Lies? (print only for now)

It’s one of those lovely New Yorker pieces that seems to meander, while you gradually discover it all hangs together.

In this case, the glue that binds is the idea that our inner states have outer manifestations. If only we could read the "telltale signs" that reveal one’s innermost thoughts, why…we could win at poker…we could convict lying felons, and release those falsely convicted…convince our sceptical spouses…create foolproof hiring tests…and so on.

In this context, Talbot places the several-centuries old lie detector machine. Its most recent manifestation comes in the form of brain scans. Meet Joel Huizenga, whose San Diego company No Lie MRI is marketing functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.

Talbot’s scepticism (born of first-hand experience-she was a victim of Stephen Glass’s deceptions at the New Republic) points out eerie paralells with past eras’ obsessions with phrenology and physiognomy, and raises questions about our social willingness to accept technologies that get things wrong at least one out of every ten times, at best. (We demand better odds for new drug development, or even radon detectors).

Philosophically, Talbot raises one big issue and skirts another.

She poses the question of the linkage between internal intent and external manifestation. There are three sources of error. First, every symptom of lying can also be a symptom of something else. Second, it is possible to fake or suppress any physical symptom.

The most interesting is the third case: the liar who truly believes he is not lying. He usually goes by the name sociopath, but I have to plead guilty too. I once told a story so many times that I truly forgot I had gotten it from someone else. When accused of plagiarism, I was genuinely astonished and outraged; I surely would have passed any lie detector test. Yet I was wrong.

No lie detector can distinguish "truthful" lies from the other sort. From there, it’s a short path to varying forms of semi-conscious self-delusion-cults and quasi-religions, not to mention garden-variety schizophrenia.

Talbot doesn’t raise one other fascinating issue. What if it really, truly were possible to create a lie detector-one so good, so widely acknowledged as accurate and so widely and cheaply available that anyone could instantly assess the truth-telling of anyone else?

In such a world, wouldn’t everyone tell the truth? And what would that world look like?

That’s the premise of a fascinating quasi-science fiction book published back in 1996 by James Halperin (see reviews ). It’s available for free at (look past the rare coins to the bottom of the page).

Halperin envisions a US society where lying just doesn’t pay. In that world, there are virtually no prisons. A radical reduction in the number of lawyers. Smaller police departments. 180-degree changes in the concept of bargaining. The Pope and Unitarians on opposite sides of cryonics. Mandatory capital punishment for a few crimes, but very few instances of it. World government. Kevorkian’s birthday a global holiday. It all makes sense (if you read the book).

The writing style makes Ayn Rand sound like Shakespeare, but the ideas are far-reaching and fascinating.

We seek lie detectors like dogs chase cars. There’s passion in the chase, but – what would we do if we ever really caught one?

0 replies
  1. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Charlie – You end with an excellent question: just what WOULD we do if we actually came up with a foolproof lie detector. Truthfully, I hope I don’t live long enough to find out. One of the great things about being human is having your own built in lie-detector. No, it may not work all the time, and for some folks it just plain old doesn’t work at all, but isn’t being able to trust – trust your instincts, trust your friends, trust yourself – one of life’s great joys? And isn’t getting conned, duped, betrayed one of life’s great levelers, one of life’s great lesson-teachers?

    Nice if we could find the perfect lie detector that could ensure that we catch terrorists, exonerate the innocent, and punish the guilty. But to take it into the realm of the personal is really terrifying to me. ("No falling in love with you, mister, until you pass my portable lie detector test.")

    As for the fMRI featured in Talbot’s article: I believe that the current accuracy rate described (under what can scarcely be characterized as true ‘field conditions’) is only 90%. That’s a lot of guilty-innocents and innocent-guilties.



  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    I couldn’t agree with you more.  90% accuracy is great at horseshoes, pool and baseball; not so hot in the determination of guilt and innocence.

    And I agree w. you about the built-in versions; the book does read as sci-fi, and therefore a bit unreal.  There is beauty in learning and suffering and getting things wrong and right; not so much, perhaps, in always deferring to a calculator.

  3. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Simple Justice, one of my favourite law blogs (/blawgs), published a post today entitled Cool Polygraph Tricks, the role of polygraphs in the ATF:

    • The ATF trains undercover agents how to successfully lie to a polygraph;
    • The justice system then depends on those agents to tell the truth when testifying in court;
    • The ATF still uses polygraphs as part of their screening process when hiring new agents.

    Interesting trust issues, hm?


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