Detecting lies in the 21st century

I am currently reading the book The Best American Science Writing 2007, and in it was an article about lie detecting by Robin Marantz Henig entitled Looking for the lie that was published in the New York Times Magazine. (Just so you know, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that polygraphs can detect lies at very high accuracy.)
Towards the end of her piece, Henig discusses some of the evolutionary implications pertaining to deception and the development of the brain. Advanced social interactions are complex and often deception needs to be part of the equation and might be somewhat related to skills that make individuals socially adapted and intelligent.

This idea is interesting because it would explain a lot of the selfish behavior that we see in humans today. Social groups that are small enough may not suffer as much from serious deceptive offences, though they definitely have their share of gossiping, etc.

But as social groups get bigger, relationships are not as much defined by kinship but by association and profession. Being able to lie or deceive may have become adaptive in these settings where it would be the difference between gaining an advantage over a competitor or getting the short end of the stick.

Henig explores the possibility that having a proven lie detector technology may not be desirable to continue living comfortably as society functions now. She discusses the spectrum of lies from harmless to malicious and how lying is not all bad. This reminded me of an episode of the manga and anime series “Kino’s Journey,” where Kino comes to a country where all the people live alone in their own houses because years ago they acquired the ability to read other peoples thoughts. It is an interesting and spot-on portrayal of how humans could ruin things if all thoughts were revealed.

The research going into lie detection is quite fascinating, as are the ethical and moral implications behind it. One researcher has nailed down a system of recognizing facial and vocal cues to tell when people are lying that is 95% accurate. He does, however, have a rule that he doesn’t use his ability to out his family and friends when they are lying to him. I wonder if I would be able to restrain myself if I had the same capabilities!

Image credit:
Flickr user Elia Diodati


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2 thoughts on “Detecting lies in the 21st century

  1. Facing all of the truths of social interaction is a frightening prospect indeed. But the existence of a proven lie detecting technology doesn’t necessarily carry with it the mandate to test everything everyone else says for truth. I think if such a thing were possible, there would be a large push to employ it only in the most necessary of cases.

    But on that note, I think this paper would be very interesting to you, in which scientists study the evolution of communication between robots in a community, and the robots even eventually exhibit the behavior of lying to each other:

  2. I don’t think people would be tested for truth, but the article did talk about the possibility of unknown surveillance for lying because of the research done in making small devices. Humans are imperfect, and though technology is created with the best intentions, if something powerful gets out there we can expect people to do sneaky mean things with it.

    Thanks for the link! That looks like really interesting research!

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