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Catch a thief // Release someone falsely accused of being one // Stop terrorism at the airport gate // Make discovering a lie feel dishonest.

No More Lies

By Allan Coukell // Photo Illustrations By Matt Mahurin // Spring 2006
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Lie detector test

One spring evening in 2005, Andre LeClerc, a slight 37-year-old of medium height, walked into a sparsely furnished room on the Medical University of South Carolina campus. He crossed to a set of green cupboards and drawers and quickly found what he was looking for: a man’s gold watch and a woman’s white-gold ring set with turquoise stones. After hesitating just a moment, he pocketed the ring and left the room.

LeClerc was an investment adviser at a local bank. He wasn’t a thief by nature, he was only doing what he’d been asked. He had stolen something, and now he was going to lie about it.

The magnetic resonance image scanner— “Big Maggie,” as it’s known at the university’s Center for Advanced Imaging Research—stands in the center of a large room. Minutes after his theft, as LeClerc lay inside the machine, a series of questions flashed on a screen above him. Some were neutral: Do you like to swim? Do you have a cat? He clicked one button for yes, another for no. And some were not: Did you take the watch from the drawer? (No, LeClerc clicked, truthfully.) Did you take the ring from the drawer? (No, again—a lie this time.) Is the watch with your possessions? (No.) Did you hide the ring? (No—another lie.)

The questions seemed endless, and LeClerc had to remind himself of the extra $50 he’d been promised if he could fool Big Maggie. When at last he was finished, he approached main investigator F. Andrew Kozel. “So,” LeClerc said, “what did I take?”

It was a question most participants asked one way or another. And though Kozel never tipped his hand (he gave everyone the $50) to avoid tainting post-study interviews with subjects, nine times out of 10 the answer to the basic query—Could you tell when I was lying?—was yes.

Most of us lie, every day. Starting in early childhood, we compliment, flatter and deliberately deceive to avoid conflict or to gain advantage. Our closest nonhuman relatives also lie, though less often. Among the more highly developed primate species, the larger the neocortex—the outer surface of the brain involved in conscious thought—the more frequent the primate’s deception.

But some lies are more damaging than others, and there are those—employers, police, courts, government agencies—who would pay dearly for the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Until recently, tools for detection have been crude. But now, as scientists find ways to peer inside our heads, several new lie detectors may be on the verge of commercial applications—and are raising pointed scientific, legal and ethical issues.

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Lie Detection Unplugged

Some people, from practiced detectives to brain-damaged aphasics, can spot a liar much better than you can. Here's why.


1. The Polygraph and Lie Detection (National Academies Press, 2003). The definitive report on the history and shortcomings of the polygraph.

2. “A Cognitive Neurobiological Account of Deception: Evidence From Functional Neuroimaging,” by Sean Spence et al., Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series B, vol. 359, November 2004. A great overview of this science, including the psychology of deception.

3. “Telling Truth From Lie in Individual Subjects With Fast Event-Related fMRI,” by Daniel Langleben et al., Human Brain Mapping, December 2005. The first paper to show how MRI can be used to detect deception in individuals.

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