American Liars and the Enforcers of Honesty

The strange story of the lie detector begins with the hard-boiled world of tough-talking cops and gangsters in the ‘20s, and involves murderers, tabloid journalists, kinky sex and mad scientists. But author Ken Alder seeks to transcend the tale’s noir elements, reaching into scientific, political, legal, psychological and even philosophical territories.

In describing the dubious development of the lie detector, Alder’s ambitious book traces a seedy history of pop culture from the ‘20s to present day, and asks “why, despite the avalanche of scientific denunciations, does the United States — and only the United States — continue to make significant use of the lie detector?”

Only in America has the campaign to expose lies taken a techno-scientific turn. The polygraph is a banal assemblage of medical technologies, a concatenation of physiological instruments available throughout the developed world for more than a century. Yet only in America has it been repurposed for interrogation.

Book: The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession

Author: Ken Alder

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Publication date: 2009-04

Length: 368 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $19.95


Redefining Lies

According to Alder, the answer is complex and somewhat cynical, but he seems to identify a trait that runs throughout US cultural history, and it boils down to a desire for objectivity:

The lie detector belonged to this same American strain of the Enlightenment project to replace personal discretion with objective measures, and political conflict with science. It proposed to do this by redefining its object of inquiry — the lie — in narrow yes-or-no terms.

However, Alder seems to argue that in reality people are less interested in objectivity than in the image of it. Even though the term “lie detector” was inaccurate and misleading, it worked to capture the imagination.

In order for the machine to work, people had to believe that it “knew” when they were lying; or as Alder writes: “… persuading Americans of the machine’s potency was itself a prerequisite for the machine’s success.”

A Cast Worthy of Raymond Chandler

“Lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality, ” writes Harry G. Frankfurt, in his treatise, On Truth. “So they are intended, in a very real way, to make us crazy.”

Book: On Truth

Author: Harry G. Frankfurt

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

Publication date: 2006-10

Length: 112 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $14.00

Image: the strange tales and eccentrics that populate this book, the craziness fundamental to the act of lying seems to affect everyone involved in the business of lie detection. By far, the most entertaining aspects of the book are its characters, and when he tells their stories, Alder seems to enjoy piling on the hard-boiled language and tone.

At the start, in Jazz Age California, we meet famed Berkeley police chief August Vollmer, who is eager to reform corruption through scientific police procedure. He teams John Larson, “the nation’s first cop with a doctorate”, with Leonarde Keeler, “a high school-age enthusiast, with less integrity but considerably greater charm” to work on the machine.

The device came around at a perfect time in American history, according to Alder, combining a growth in media, a fascination with technology, a skyrocketing national crime rate, and revelations of corruptions in police and government across the country:

To a nation obsessed by criminal disorder and political corruption, the device seemed to light the way toward an honest society. Adultery, murder, conspiracy, espionage — the bright lamp of the lie detector would piece the human opacity which allowed these secret vices to flourish.

A Risky Prospect

The story of the lie detector involves many players, from the world’s first all-female detective agency, to the inventor of Wonder Woman, to famed murderers Leopold and Loeb, to William James, and many more. The book could have focused solely on the interesting characters and been successful.

By expanding the scope of the story to include an examination of pseudo-science, legal history, and even a bit of a polemic on American culture, Alder risks spreading the book too thinly, trying to make the lie detector a metaphor for a key flaw in the character of America.

But whenever the story takes a turn for the dry, another interesting bit comes up, many of which (aside from the characters and their noir-esque exploits) involve examining the notion of lying itself.

Book: On Bullshit

Author: Harry G. Frankfurt

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Publication date: 2005-01

Length: 80 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $9.95

Image: Are Lies, Anyway?

Returning to Frankfurt (Harry G.), he writes in his mini-epic essay, On Bullshit: “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth.”

In other words, if a person believes he’s telling the truth, then how would a machine touted as a “lie detector” know the difference?

“People sometimes call a polygraph a lie detector but this title is misleading. A polygraph does not detect lies, but only physiological activity that is assumed to accompany telling a lie,” writes Aldert Vrij in his textbook, Detecting Lies and Deceit.

Succeeding by Pretense

Alder describes how lie detection depends on liars exhibiting a physiological response when telling a lie: increased heart rate, voice stress, sweating, increased blinking, changes to brain activity, facial expressions: all of these and more have been put forward as methods to determining that someone is lying.

Book: Detecting Lies and Deceit: Pitfalls and Opportunities

Author: Aldert Vrij

Publisher: Wiley, John & Sons

Publication date: 2008-03

Length: 502 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $70.00

Image: “Throughout history it has been assumed that lying is accompanied by physiological activity within the liar’s body,” writes Vrij. “[But] not a single nonverbal, verbal, or psychological response is uniquely associated with deception … This means that there is no single response that the lie detector can truly rely upon.”

That has never stopped people from believing that they could tell a lie from the truth, a belief that’s been fundamental to the business of lie detection. “To a nation eager for justice that is swift and sure, it hardly matters that the lie detector succeeds by pretense,” Alder writes.

The Deception of Lie Detection

Here’s how to work a lie detector, according to Alder:

First, maneuver subjects into taking the test by telling them that only guilty people feared it … Then convince the subject that the lie detector worked, and repeat the questions until a full confession was forthcoming. It wasn’t science, but it did the trick.

It’s a process familiar to police dramas, where investigators manipulate a suspect into believing that they know the truth, or will know when the suspect is lying.

Book: Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressions

Authors: Paul Ekman, Wallace V. Friesen

Publisher: I S H K

Publication date: 2003-09

Length: 212 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $21.95

Image: Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen write in Unmasking the Face: “Everyone has had the experience of being able, or thinking he was able, to tell what someone said was a lie from the look on his face.”

That belief on both sides—questioner and suspect—has always been a key factor to any police investigation. The lie detector added an element of “science” to the process, and the media loved it.

During the 1920s nothing moved print better than tales of true crime, and here was a new angle on noir stories of depravity: an instrument that let readers peer directly into the criminal soul. The machine’s judgment could be delivered to the morning doorstep, a front-page deus ex machina that resolved the mystery of whodunnit—at least until the next morning’s paper.

Not Born of Science

During the ‘40s and ‘50s, Cold War concerns about spies stealing nuclear secrets revitalized the lie detection industry, and it segued smoothly from there into the corporate world, vetting employees for corporate espionage, honesty and loyalty to the company, and ferreting out “undesirable” personality traits.

An American Industry

Keeler eventually dubbed the machine a “polygraph”, to the disdain of Larson, who thought the term was deliberately vague and inaccurate, and only served to further Keeler’s desire to centralize his control over the industry of lie detection that was to come. The long and ultimately tragic battle between these two men frames much of the book’s narrative.

But the story doesn’t end with them. During the ‘40s and ‘50s, Cold War concerns about spies stealing nuclear secrets revitalized the lie detection industry, and it segued smoothly from there into the corporate world, vetting employees for corporate espionage, honesty and loyalty to the company, and ferreting out “undesirable” personality traits.

The lie detector has thrived in America because the instrument played into one of the greatest projects of the twentieth century: the effort to transform the central moral question of our collective life – how to fashion a just society — into a legal problem.

TV’s Lie Detectors

The success of the procedural drama has led to a resurgence in modern myths about lie detection, and an obvious example would be the character played by Tim Roth in Lie to Me, based on the real-life exploits of Paul Ekman.

Ekman has forged an industry around the idea of detecting emotions (and most popularly, lies) by watching a person’s face for “micro expressions“, which by his definition are extremely brief and subtle versions of regular facial expressions, and often appear when someone is trying to conceal an emotion. According to Ekman, lying tends to generate emotions that the liars want to conceal.

As happened in the ‘20s with the first modern lie detector, there’s some of the old shell game going on here with “micro expressions” and other cutting edge techniques for sussing out liars. It seems the public is just as eager today as it has ever been for the “secret” to knowing when someone is lying. As Vrij writes:

In principle, lies can be detected via observing someone’s behavior, analyzing their speech, or measuring their physiological responses. In all three areas practitioners and researchers can be found who make bold claims about their ability to detect lie that they fail to back up with research findings.

Even though Ekman’s fictional persona always catches the bad guy by watching for “micro expressions”, in real life Ekman has always been quick to concede the point made by Vrij, writing, “…We have not found any behavioral change that always occurs in every person who is lying.”

Book: Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life

Author: Paul Ekman

Publisher: Henry Holt & Company

Publication date: 2007-03

Length: 320 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: $16.00


“There are no signs of lying itself, only hot spots,” he writes in Emotions Revealed. “[But] hot spots are not proof of lying.”

What Makes A Good Liar?

Vrij also points out, “…Some people are very good liars.” The notion that a liar is concealing an emotion, or that there’s a physiological change in a liar’s body during the act of lying, doesn’t seem to apply to these people, and eliminates them from detection by any machine.

Which begs the question, how do you tell a lie, and tell it well? Vrij identifies three characteristics common to good liars: their behavior doesn’t arouse suspicion; they find it easy to lie; and when they lie, they don’t feel emotions such as fear, guilt, or delight.

“I think that these three criteria include right characteristics: (i) being a natural performer; (ii) being well prepared; (iii) being original; (iv) thinking rapidly; (v) being eloquent; (vi) having a good memory; (vii) not experiencing feelings of fear, guilt, or duping delight while lying; and (viii) being good at acting.”

The Kinky History of Wonder Woman

Back to the book for one more irresistible digression: Larson was influenced by work done at the time by William Moulton Marston, a Harvard psychologist and lawyer, who went on to create “Wonder Woman” as “the embodiment, he said, of all the psychological principles behind his technique of honesty testing”.

After being denied an opportunity to present his lie detection findings in court, in a 1922 case that set the precedent for disallowing lie detector evidence, Marston worked in various academic jobs, “while parlaying his study of the lie detector into a grand unified theory of the emotions”. Then in 1941, he created Wonder Woman, whose “magic lasso, which compels obedience, is the ultimate lie detector.”

The book quotes Marston as saying, “’Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.’”

For dramatic and visual punch, Marston relied heavily on imagery of enslavement and emancipation, with (scantily clad) women led in chains, hypnotized into submission, and otherwise disciplined — only to overcome their bondage thanks to Wonder Woman.

This revelation of her character’s origins suggests an adult (and unlikely) direction the comic book could take, one that embraces the fetish elements central to her story.

Many of Wonder Woman’s adversaries were women likewise endowed with sexual and physical powers, except that they sought unbounded domination. By contrast, Wonder Woman reformed her opponents on Paradise Island, where they were put in shackles until they had learned to follow her own ‘loving submission to authority’.

Why the Lie Detector Won’t Die

As a culture history of lie detection, the book raises fascinating psychological questions that may have been cultivated in the US, but by book’s end, Alder describes how other countries have picked up on the notion of lie detection, and the power inherent in it. As a collection of strange stories of odd people who influenced global pop culture, the book is even more interesting.

And as damning as Alder’s argument is, the industry of lie detection isn’t likely to go away.

The lie detector cannot be killed by science, because it is not born of science. Its habitat is not the laboratory or even the courtroom, but newsprint, film, television, and of course the pulps, comic books, and science fiction.


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