Category Archives: Miscellaneous

More on truth serums

Shelley at the neuroscience blog Retrospectacle mused on truth serums last week (9 Jan):

Let’s just assume for a moment that there existed some potion that extracted the truth from people, rendered them unable to lie when questioned. Wouldn’t that negate free will?

Not so much in the religious sense of the word, but rather in the sense of information or confessions being freely given. It would certainly change our judicial system, where criminals are seen as repentant if they confess their crimes and parole boards would be pretty much moot. My feeling is that our secrets are part of what defines us. I don’t mean secrets like cheating on a spouse or child abuse or something, but rather the thoughts and small actions that we choose to keep to ourselves. […]

There’s an interesting conversation going on in the comments to Shelley’s post, including a discussion of how truth serums work (or don’t work) and the ethics of using them for criminal investigations, as the Indian police are doing.

Truth serums and “brain fingerprinting” used in Indian serial killer case

A serial killing case in India has caused quite a stir in recent weeks, with suspicions that the murders are linked to human organ trafficking operations and allegations of police incompetence in investigating the disappearances of the children. The Observer (UK, 7 Jan) explains:

Forty or more people, ranging from a boy aged 10 months to a 32-year-old mother of three, may have fallen victim to two of India’s most prolific serial killers as the authorities revealed their suspicion that murders may have been carried out to harvest body parts such as kidneys, livers and kneecaps.

[…] Yesterday, as police fought to control further riots by angry locals, the leader of India’s ruling coalition, Sonia Gandhi, made a surprise visit to the scene of the crime and harshly criticised the local police handling of the investigation. Responsibility for it has now been handed over to India’s top federal investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation.

In the last week, six police officers have been suspended after it emerged that Pandher, the prime suspect in the case, was arrested 13 months ago following a series of complaints from local residents in the slum bordering his house who suspected his involvement in the disappearance of their children. But the suspect walked out of the police station the same night.

Two men have been arrested in the case, and CNN-IBN News (5 Jan) explains what lies in store:

The Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, is currently conducting a narco-analysis test on the two accused in the Nithari serial killings case – Moninder Singh Pandher and Surinder.

[…] An anesthetist, a forensic expert and two psychologists. All of them are being given a comprehensive briefing by the Noida Police as to the questions that need to be posed to the accused once the truth serum has been administered.

[…] Assistant Director, FSL, Gandhinagar, V H Patel, “We inject drugs into a person, which makes his conscious mind relax. It is under the influence of these drugs that a person begins to speak out the things that he would normally try to hide.”

The chemical injected during the test is sodium pentathol, which is popularly known as the truth serum, for obvious reasons. […] The effect of the drug makes the person semi conscious, restricting their ability to manipulate answers or use their imagination.

In addition to the narco-analysis test, the Nithari accused will have to undergo a Brain Finger Printing Test and a Lie Detection or Polygraph Test.

[…] Says an FSL official, Namrata Khopkar, “Once the sensors are placed, and we show pictures to the accused and make them hear things. The way one’s brain reacts to these sounds can establish a lot of things.”

Both the use of sodium pentathol and “brain fingerprinting” techniques are highly controversial. Previous Deception Blog posts on ‘truth serums’ can be found here, and previous coverage of the use of brain scans by the Indian police can be found here and here.

10 Ways to Catch a Liar

WebMd’s 23 November article on catching liars is remarkable. It’s the first of its kind that I’ve come across where I think I agree with every one of the tips. No assertion that gaze aversion is a cue to deception! No suggestion that liars fidget or look nervous! No claim that NLP eye access cues can help you spot a liar! Why can’t all articles on lie detection be like this?

In brief, here are the ten tips. But do go and read the whole article, which has more detail on each tip.

1: Inconsistencies: […] “When you want to know if someone is lying, look for inconsistencies in what they are saying,” says [JJ] Newberry, who was a federal agent for 30 years and a police officer for five. […]

2: Ask the Unexpected: […] “Watch them carefully,” says Newberry. “And then when they don’t expect it, ask them one question that they are not prepared to answer to trip them up.” […]

3: Gauge Against a Baseline: […] The trick, explains [Maureen O’Sullivan, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco], is to gauge their behavior against a baseline. Is a person’s behavior falling away from how they would normally act? If it is, that could mean that something is up. […]

4: Look for Insincere Emotions: […] “Most people can’t fake smile,” says O’Sullivan. “The timing will be wrong, it will be held too long, or it will be blended with other things. […]

5: Pay Attention to Gut Reactions: […] “People say, ‘Oh, it was a gut reaction or women’s intuition,’ but what I think they are picking up on are the deviations of true emotions,” O’Sullivan tells WebMD. […]

6: Watch for Microexpressions: […] “A microexpression is a very brief expression, usually about a 25th of a second, that is always a concealed emotion,” says [Paul] Ekman, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco. […]

7: Look for Contradictions: […] “The general rule is anything that a person does with their voice or their gesture that doesn’t fit the words they are saying can indicate a lie,” says Ekman. […]

1 to 7 are all sensible, well-founded tips. I have a couple of caveats on 8 and 9:

8: A Sense of Unease: […] “When someone isn’t making eye contact and that’s against how they normally act, it can mean they’re not being honest,” says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice. […]

Emphasis added – lack of eye contact in itself is not a reliable indicator of deception, but if it is out of character then you might have to ask yourself: why the change in behaviour? All of which underlines the importance of establishing baseline behaviour (tip 3).

9: Too Much Detail: […] Too much detail could mean they’ve put a lot of thought into how they’re going to get out of a situation and they’ve crafted a complicated lie as a solution.

Caveat: unless they’re the sort of person who always provides excessive detail in stories (some people are just like that!).

10: Don’t Ignore the Truth: “It’s more important to recognize when someone is telling the truth than telling a lie because people can look like they’re lying but be telling truth,” says Newberry.

Hat tip to Enrica Dente’s Lie Detection list for the link!

Some Believe ‘Truth Serums’ Will Come Back

But the Washington Post (20 Nov) finds no evidence that anyone anywhere is seriously working on developing such techniques.

Is there something you can give a person that will make him tell the truth? […] the answer appears to be: No. There is no pharmaceutical compound today whose proven effect is the consistent or predictable enhancement of truth-telling.

[…Research psychologist Gordon H. Barland] spent 14 years working at the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute. While psychopharmacology was not his specialty, trying to catch liars was. “I would have expected that if there was some sort of truth drug in general use I would have heard rumors of it. I never did,” said Barland, who retired in 2000 and now lives in Utah. He further doubts that the government would again engage in such experiments[…]

[…] Another psychologist who spent 20 years in military research said he also “never heard anything like that or knew of anyone who was doing that work.”

[…] Some doubt the practicality of running, or keeping secret, such a research agenda [to develop truth serums]. “I can’t imagine it,” said Tara O’Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

… and so on…

Three years of the BPS Research Digest

I was mighty flattered when Christian from the BPS Research Digest wrote to ask if I would contribute to the online celebration of three years of the Research Digest. But what a very difficult task. An empirical study from the last three years that changed the way I think about things? I racked my brains, but I couldn’t think of one in my area of forensic psych. All of the articles that really changed the way I thought about my research were published before 2003, and many of them were not experimental studies, but reviews and theoretical papers synthesising experimental findings in a new way (I might post about these sometime – when I have some time).

So instead I took a paper that reported a study on deception detection that I thought dealt with real law enforcement concerns, where the research was conducted in partnership with a UK police force, and which produced some interesting results that challenge previous research findings in this area. You can find my piece on the BPS Research Digest Blog, along with contributions from some very gifted psych bloggers. What wonderful company to be in – I’m humbled!


Oooo – we’ve been added to Intute!

This weblog – an online log – comprises articles and links on the subject of deception: psychological research, opinion pieces, and news stories. An archive of stories is available and users can subscribe to the site using aggregation software for automatic notification of new posts. Each article is categorised to facilitate browsing. The site will be useful for students, teachers, and researchers.
Classification Forensic Psychology and Legal Issues
Country of origin United States

But wait a minute, we’re not from the US – the Deception Blog is British, dammit! UPDATE: The kind folks at Intute have put us back in our correct country of origin.
In case you aren’t already using it, I would recommend Intute:Social Sciences – which is what SOSIG evolved into – highly. A terrific directory of social science resources. The Deception Blog is proud to be included!

Anticipation skill and susceptibility to deceptive movement

From the November 2006 issue of Acta Psychologica, Robin Jackson, Simon Warren and Bruce Abernethy from the University of Hong Kong and Brunel University UK (Warren), report a study of expert and novice rugby players’ ability to tell if an opponent is faking a movement:

The ability to detect deceptive movement was examined in skilled and novice rugby players. Participants (14 per group) attempted to predict direction change from video of expert and recreational rugby players changing direction with and without deceptive movement. Confidence associated with judgments was recorded on each trial to seek evidence regarding use of inferential (heuristic-based) and direct-perceptual (invariant-based) judgments. Novices were found to be susceptible to deceptive movement whereas skilled participants were not; however, both skilled and novice participants were more confident on trials containing deceptive movement. The data suggest that the skill-level difference in sensitivity to advance visual information extends to deceptive information. The implications of this finding, and the importance of considering the underlying process of anticipation skill, are discussed.

Robin C. Jackson, Simon Warren and Bruce Abernethy (2006). Anticipation skill and susceptibility to deceptive movement. Acta Psychologica 123(3): 355-371

Call for PhD abstracts: The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law

If you’ve completed a PhD in any area that connects with linguistics and language in a legal setting – for instance, a thesis that concerns deception – then you might consider submitting the abstract to the International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law.

Samuel Tomblin, the PhD Abstracts editor, explains:

The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law invites PhD abstracts for possible inclusion in its pages during 2007, in Volume 14 (1). The abstracts are intended to:

(a) enable those who have recently completed a PhD to disseminate a summary of their work amongst members of the academic commuinity who have an interest in language and the law; and

(b) provide journal readers with snapshots of PhD theses which have recently published in the field of language and the law.

If you have successfully completed a thesis on any area connected to language in legal settings within the last 3 years, or have a PhD. award for a thesis
relating to the field pending, you are warmly invited to submit an abstract for consideration. As with articles, all abstracts will be refereed before a decision is made to publish and the editors’ decision will be final. All abstracts submitted should be 400-1000 words long.

Send abstracts to Samuel Tomblin, Centre for Language and Communication Research, Cardiff University, Humanities Building, Cardiff CF10 3EU, UK – his email address can be found on the IJSLL website here. But hurry – the deadline is 30 September!

Is alcohol a truth serum?

In vino veritas? wonders the Indianapolis Star (28 Aug):

Mel Gibson’s recent arrest for suspected drunken driving and his reportedly belligerent, anti-Semitic behavior toward police revive an old question — do people show their true colors when they’re under the influence?

Alcohol researchers and treatment experts say there is no simple answer. “You become more impulsive with the things you might say or do under the influence of alcohol,” says Julia Chester, assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. That’s because, say Chester and others, alcohol has a “disinhibitory” influence on behaviors that are controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain.

The Truth About Truth Serum

… from Damn Interesting (30 August):

Popular culture makes gratuitous use of powerful lie-repelling agents known as Truth Serums. They are usually depicted as injected drugs which strongly inhibit a subject’s ability to lie, causing him or her to mechanically recite the truth to an interviewer upon questioning.

[…] But are these truth serums effective? Do they produce any useful results?

The short answer is, no. The long answer is “Noooooooooooo!” while running in slow-motion.

Nice. Read the whole thing.

ABC programme on lying

The Antipolygraph Blog pointed us towards an Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV special on deception entitled To Catch a Liar that aired back in July.

A transcript of the show is available (some good links at the end of this if you scroll down). The programme included comments from Steve Apernen, Maureen O’Sullivan and Andrew Ryan of DoDPI.

More details on the Antipolygraph Blog, where John Furedy (University of Toronto) has posted a review in the comments.

How to detect bullshit

An entertaining piece by Scott Berkun (9 Aug) on how to detect lies and BS.

[…] One particularly troublesome kind of lie is known as Bullshit (BS). These are unnecessary deceptions, committed in the gray area between polite white lies and complete malicious fabrications. BS is usually defined as inventions made in ignorance of the facts, where the primary goal is to protect oneself. The aim of BS isn’t to harm another person, although that often happens collaterally. For a variety of reasons BS can be hard to detect […]

Hat tip to Lifehacker for the link!

Pages on deception on WikiHow

WikiHow, a collaborative writing project to build the world’s largest how-to manual, has a few pages relevant to deception and deception detection.

On 2 August their page on How to Cheat a Polygraph Test (Lie Detector) was a featured article. It’s an extensive and detailed set of suggestions for how to beat the polygraph, and also includes a summary of the polygraph procedure.

WikiHow also has an entertaining page on How to Lie which isn’t bad. But the page on How to Detect Lies contains some suggestions for detecting lies which have absolutely no empirical support, such as:

Notice the person’s eye movements. Someone who is lying will be more reluctant than usual to make direct eye contact.

Nope. Countless studies have indicated that gaze aversion is one of the least reliable ‘deception clues’, despite being one of the most commonly cited (DePaulo et al 2003; Vrij 2000; Bond 2006)

Liars also tend to blink more often.

Nervous people blink more often. People who are thinking hard blink less often. So far the studies suggest that liars tend on balance to show more signs of cognitive load (thinking hard) than nerves. (Mann et al., 2003; Vrij et al., 2006)

A typical right-handed person tends to look towards his right when remembering something that actually happened and towards their left when they’re making something up.

An NLP-based cue, widely cited as a reliable sign of deception. There is no empirical evidence for eye movements being connected to deception, and it’s worth noting that the founders of NLP never claimed that eye movements could be used to detect deception (also, Vrij & Lochun, 1997).

Check for sweating. People tend to sweat more when they lie.

Nervous people sweat more often. Not a reliable sign of deception.

Watch their hands, arms and legs, which tend to be limited, stiff, and self-directed when the person is lying.

Not sure about the self-directed bit, but this the empirical evidence DOES suggest that liars tend to make fewer hand and foot movements than truth tellers. Again, this is a sign of cognitive load (DePaulo et al 2003; Vrij 2000; Vrij et al., 2006).

The hands may touch or scratch their face, nose or behind an ear, but are not likely to touch their chest or heart with an open hand.

The empirical evidence indicates that liars are no more likely to touch their faces than truth-tellers (DePaulo et al, 2003). I’ve not seen any research relating to touching of the chest.

Poll Finds White Lies a Necessary Evil

Earlier this month the Associated Press sponsored an opnion poll on lying, publishing the results on 11 July.

Apparently white lies are an acceptable, even necessary, part of many lives – even though we dislike the idea of lying.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans agree. In the AP-Ipsos poll, 65 percent of those questioned said it was sometimes OK to lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, even though 52 percent said lying, overall, was never justified.

The article discusses the philosophy and ethics of lying, and brings in the work of noted expert in the psychology of deception, Bella DePaulo, who is quoted thus:

“People who say lying is wrong are often thinking in the abstract,” DePaulo says. “In our real lives, we can’t always pick honesty without compromising some other value that might be as important” – like maintaining a happy relationship.

Are you more likely to be truthful in a blue room?

Seriously. Hat tip to Omnibrain for pointing out an article in the Times (3 April) about using colour to improve prisoner compliance.

Gwent Police have abandoned the greys, browns and beiges of the 20th-century police cell and have used colour psychology to decorate them. Ystrad Mynach station, which recently opened at a cost of £5 million, has four cells with glass doors for prisoners who suffer from claustrophobia. Designers have painted the frames yellow, which researchers say is a calming colour. Other cells contain a royal blue line because psychologists believe that the colour is likely to encourage truthfulness.

As J. Stephen Higgins at Omnibrain comments, file this under “I think I need to see the research to even consider taking this seriously” category. Do reputable psychologists really believe this? Even Ingrid Collins (presumably the “Consultant Educational Psychologist, Chartered Psychologist, Registered Spiritual Healer and Accredited Feng Shui Consultant” here?) demurs:

[…] Ingrid Collins, a psychologist who specialises in the effects of colour, said that colour was an “energy force”. She said: “Blue does enhance communication but I am not sure it would enhance truthful communication.”

To be serious for a moment, this is potentially an interesting and practical idea, but only if it is grounded in solid research. Otherwise it’s interior design bullshit. There is a fair amount of research on the psychology of colour and I haven’t the time to go searching at the moment, but can anyone out there point me towards some reputable (preferably peer reviewed) research that suggests that ‘blue’ (or indeed any colour) can encourage truthfulness?

Brain scans used in trial in India

Via OmniBrain (28 March 06), a rather troubling report that “brain scans” have been used in the trial of an alleged rapist in India.

The results of the brain-mapping and polygraph (lie-detector) tests conducted on rape accused Abhishek Kasliwal have come out in favour of the prosecution. The Mumbai Police had conducted the tests on March 19 at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Bangalore.

Sadly, no further details are available, but OmniBrain author J. Stephen Higgins is on the case. Keep an eye on the comments there to see how far he gets.

UPDATE (3 April)

Sandra at Neurofuture is also on the case, and has posted some more detail and links. One link in particular is illuminating, revealing that the Indian police use the polygraph, EEG and sodium pentathol. [Which is apparently fine, because:

“Narcoanalysis is a very scientific and a humane approach in dealing with an accused’s psychological expressions, definitely better than third degree treatment to extract truth from an accused,” affirms Dr Malini.

Well, definitely better that the ‘third degree’ to be sure. However, here’s Wikipedia on the topic:

While fictional accounts of intelligence interrogation gives these drugs near magical abilities, information obtained by publicly-disclosed truth drugs has been shown to be highly unreliable, with subjects apparently freely mixing fact and fantasy. Much of the claimed effect relies on the belief of the subject that they cannot tell a lie while under the influence of the drug.]

I digress. According to the 2004 Deccan Herald article that Sandra found, “EEG ” appears to refer to Larry Farwell’s controversial Brain Fingerprinting Technique. I might come back to that when I have more time. Meanwhile, keep up to speed with Sandra’s detective work via

Useful websites

Under construction!

Non-verbal Behaviour

Jaume Masip’s Non-verbal behaviour links

Comprehensive Body Language site maintained by Marco Pacori – terrific library and links to other online libraries

“Data Face”, the face and emotion website maintained by Joseph C Hager

Brain activity and deception: Brain scanning, ‘brain fingerprinting’, fMRI and ERPs

How to Lie with fMRI

A good resource for those wanting to know more about the caveats on fMRI research:

fMRI Statistics provide another means by which “lie” to produce misleading data, often unintentionally, and it’s essential that readers be aware of some of the pitfalls both when producing and consuming neuroimaging data. This is also not intended as fodder for the anti-fMRI crowd who argue that it’s all bunk– fMRI results can be very robust and reliable but its important that both the producers and consumers know how to determine what’s real.

Other deception-related sites

The Truth About Deception – added 3 Apr 06 – takes a look at deception in romantic relationships. Very much aimed at a lay (and suspicious!) audience, but the advice and commentary is based on reliable research.

Eyes for Lies – added (again!) 15 Mar 07 –  EfL is a natural deception “wizard” and shares her thoughts on deception in this blog.

Links to useful articles and reports

Please bear with me – these links are under construction

The Polygraph and Lie Detection
(2003). The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. The most recent comprehensive report reviewing the empirical evidence for the effectiveness and utility of the polygraph and other methods of deception detection.

New Scientist’s Deception Special, from 30 July 2005
An interesting set of stories on various aspects of lying, including:

  • Our lying minds – Deception plays a crucial role in our daily lives, but don’t take our word for it
  • The truth about lies – Lying has its uses and so do the people who can detect it.
  • The power of mediums – What gives mediums their seemingly uncanny ability to read our minds?
  • Tricks of the magical trade – The techniques magicians use reveal just how easy it is to bamboozle the brain.
  • The great pretender – Derren Brown is a British illusionist who specialises in psychological techniques to give the appearance of mind reading and thought control
  • Sadly, all articles are now in the ‘premium’ section of the magazine so you need to be a subscriber (or pay) to access the full text.

    Deception Detection: Psychologists try to learn how to spot a liar
    Carrie Lock
    Science News, July 31, 2004; Vol. 166, No. 5 , p. 72
    A good overview article, with plenty of quotes from the big names in this field and a good set of links at the end.

    Who can catch a liar?
    American Psychologist 46 (September 1991) :913-920
    Paul Ekman and Maureen O’Sullivan’s classic paper, freely available as a PDF from the above link.

    Detecting Deception: A Quick Review of the Research, a paper from John M. Grohol on the Psych Central website. A very quick review, and drawing very selectively on the research.

    An informative FAQ page on fMRI and deception from Cephos Corp, but remember that the company is trying to sell fMRI technology for lie detection.

    Detecting deception in the APA’s Monitor on Psychology, Volume 35, No. 7 July/August 2004, discusses using behavioural measures to detect deception, drawing on the work of Paul Ekman and Mark Frank.

    DePaulo et al. (2003). Cues to Deception. Psychological Bulletin 129(1):74–118. (Link takes you to a PDF).

    About this blog

    Welcome to the Deception Blog!

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    Using Witness Confidence can Impair the Ability to Detect Deception

    Veronica S. Tetterton and Amye R. Warren
    Criminal Justice and Behavior, 32(4), 433-451, August 2005

    Prior research has shown that jurors rely on confidence in discriminating between accurate and inaccurate testimonies despite the weak relationship between the two. The purpose of this study is to learn if truth seekers also use confidence in judging truthfulness. In two studies, participants were either not given instructions regarding witness confidence or were told not to use witness confidence, and then they were asked to rate the believability of the videotaped testimony of four witnesses who varied in confidence and truthfulness. Regardless of the instructions, participants did rely on confidence and rated highly confident testimonies as more believable. They also rated false testimonies as significantly more believable than true statements.