Authorities want a machine that can detect liars.
Are they getting closer to finding it?
Since September 11, 2001, federal agencies have spent millions of dollars on research designed to detect deceptive behavior in travelers passing through US airports and border crossings in the hope of catching terrorists. Security personnel have been trained—and technology has been devised—to identify, as an air transport trade association representative once put it, “bad people and not just bad objects.” Yet for all this investment and the decades of research that preceded it, researchers continue to struggle with a profound scientific question: How can you tell if someone is lying?
That problem is so complex that no one, including the engineers and psychologists developing machines to do it, can be certain if any technology will work. “It fits with our notion of justice, somehow, that liars can’t really get away with it,” says Maria Hartwig, a social psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who cowrote a recent report on deceit detection at airports and border crossings. The problem is, as Hartwig explains it, that all the science says people are really good at lying, and it’s incredibly hard to tell when we’re doing it.Read more: Deception Is Futile When Big Brother’s Lie Detector Turns Its Eyes on You, Wired>>
In fact, most of us lie constantly—ranging from outright cons to minor fibs told to make life run more smoothly. “Some of the best research I’ve seen says we lie as much as 10 times every 24 hours,” says Phil Houston, a soft-spoken former CIA interrogator who is now CEO of QVerity, a company selling lie-detecting techniques in the business world. “There’s some research on college students that says it may be double and triple that. We lie a ton.” And yet, statistically, people can tell whether someone is telling the truth only around 54 percent of the time, barely better than a coin toss.
For thousands of years, attempts to detect deceit have relied on the notion that liars’ bodies betray them. But even after a century of scientific research, this fundamental assumption has never been definitively proven. “We know very little about deception from either a psychological or physiological view at the basic level,” says Charles Honts, a former Department of Defense polygrapher and now a Boise State University psychologist specializing in the study of deception. “If you look at the lie-detection literature, there’s nothing that ties it together, because there’s no basic theory there. It’s all over the place.”