Continuing along in the 360’s (Social Problems & Social Services) section of the Fulton County Public Library, I’ve landed in a section on lying. Lying is a huge social problem. There are many reasons people might lie which include (but are not limited to) trying not to hurt someone’s feelings or trying to keep themselves out of trouble. defines lying as:

  1. the telling of lies, or false statements; untruthfulness…

     2.telling or containing lies; deliberately untruthful; deceitful; false…

The Bible has this to say about lying:

The LORD detests lying lips, but He delights in people who are trustworthy. (Proverbs 12:22, NIV)

Because, unfortunately, lying is so prevalent in our society and because in many cases people think it is socially acceptable, we need a way to figure out who is telling the truth and who is lying. While character would enter in to this detection process on various levels we also need more scientific methods of proving truth or lies. This is especially true in courts of law as well as in cases where officials need to interview suspected criminals or witnesses. This need gave birth to the invention of the lie detector, circa 1920. A lie detector is a device that is hooked up to a person who is being questioned. The device measures physiological responses such as rate of breathing, blood pressure, pulse, and perspiration. It is believed that a person who is trying to hide something would have involuntary responses while trying to cover up the truth. The machine records an individual’s responses and if they are “out of the ordinary,” the person is assumed to be lying. Lie detectors are known by many different names some of which are polygraph, deception detection (or detector), and truth seekers. The United States is the only country in the world that has made extensive use of this device. While the device itself isn’t fail proof and it’s results have rarely been admissible in a court of law, Americans are still obsessed with the idea that we can scientifically prove when someone is lying. This obsession is at the heart of The Lie Detectors:the History of an American Obsession by Ken Alder.


As you might imagine, The Lie Detectors follows the invention, implications, and applications of a lie detector from its birth to modern day. Along the way, various interesting stories involving lie detectors are told.

The lie detector is an American invention that was initially supposed to be used to stop “third degree” (read hostile and violent) interrogation of suspects in criminal cases. Initially it was hoped that the lie detector would eliminate the need for juries, judges, and the legal system since the truth would be known and there would be no need to weigh evidence and make a decision about guilt or innocence. The first case in which a lie detector was used to solve a crime was at College Hall, a women’s dormitory at Berkley. A woman was robbed of a diamond ring and some cash. The lie detector was brought in to discover the truth of the situation; a real life whodunnit. The robbery victim was used as a control subject since it was known that she actually was robbed. All the other women and the dorm mother were questioned until the culprit was found and charged with the crime. It is important to note that the thief was caught not only by the lie detector results but also because she believed the lie detector would find her guilty.

John Larson, a police officer and the person who is generally credited with the invention of the lie detector, wanted to use his device as an official law enforcement tool.  (Detective Larson had to “interview” the robbery victim mentioned in the above case on multiple occasions. On one of these interview dates, Larsen asked the victim if she loved him. She said no, but the machine said she was lying. Larsen later married her.) Larsen also wanted to clean up police and political corruption using the device. This tool could also be used to identify inmates who were falsely imprisoned. Although the uses just mentioned were Larsen’s primary aspirations for his machine, he inadvertently discovered it could also be used as tool to diagnose mental disorders such as schizophrenia, psychopathology, and medical conditions. Larsen discovered his own irregular heartbeat with his lie detector.

Not surprisingly, Larsen met a lot of resistance from corrupt politicians and police officers when he tried to clean up “dirty” officers and officials who didn’t want to be exposed. Even many inmates (particularly the guilty ones) didn’t like the use of lie detectors since they were able to buy their way out of trouble through the corrupt cops and politicians. Judges were afraid of being replaced by a machine and didn’t like the idea that a machine could decide a man’s fate-something they said that only juries should do. Perhaps more surprising was the reaction of the mental health professionals of the day. They claimed that the lie detector was not based on “real science” since they felt threatened by its existence. When confronted with this reaction from psychiatrists and psychologists, Larsen came to believe that many of these people were frauds and had no qualms about saying so. Being so outspoken didn’t win Larsen any friends.

There were (and still are) other problems with the lie detector. From the very beginning, there were ways to circumvent the results. For instance in the very first case at College Hall, Berkley the thief actually passed the test the first time she took it. It was discovered that she was so nervous having to take the test that she took several drugs to try to calm herself–which influenced the test results. When the thief was retested when not on drugs, she believed she would now be found guilty and when told the machine said she was lying, she became very violent, jumped up and tried to destroy the machine. She eventually confessed believing she had been found out, but ironically the test wasn’t finished and Larsen only told her she was found to be lying (as he did all the other women so he could gauge their reactions). Therefore, the test can be influenced based on what the test subject believes to be true, whether it is or not.

There were times, when the test subjects themselves were able to fool the lie detector by only pretending to do what was asked of them. Another examiner, Leonarde Keeler, made some improvements to the recording instruments on the lie detector machine and then patented the “Keeler Polygraph.” Keeler, who was also an amateur magician, used the farce of trying to help subjects relax before the test by performing a card trick. He actually was trying to establish a baseline pattern on the machine. Keeler would ask subjects to pick a card out of a deck of playing cards and look at it. Then he would ask the subjects to deny every card he showed them was their card as part of the trick. Of course Keeler had marked the cards so he knew exactly which card the subject had seen and when they denied it, he had their baseline. A particularly astute woman picked a card, but only pretended to look at it. So when she denied seeing all of the cards, she beat the test. (Keeler later married the woman.)

Not all of the problems associated with the lie detector test were about the machine itself. Because the questions were subjective and usually written by the examiner, bias could be introduced through the questions. Many questions were found to be prejudicial based on the assumptions of the examiner. For instance, there was a ridiculous assumption in the 1920’s that African Americans were less truthful than whites. Despite the lie detector confirming an African American’s answers, the examiners (who were almost always white men) would make excuses as to why the results couldn’t be correct because everyone “knew” that whites were more truthful. Ironically this said more about the dishonesty of the white officials than anything that was assumed about African Americans.

John Larsen saw the lie detector being used in ways he never intended and compared himself to Dr. Frankenstein who lost control of his monster. Though John Larsen tried, he couldn’t reign in his own monster, the lie detector he had created. During Larsen’s lifetime, the lie detector was being used to advertise everything from cigarettes to razors. A one time friend and late life enemy of Larsen, Leonarde Keeler, used the lie detector to gauge audience responses to movies making him one of the earliest audience pollers of film. The only use John Larsen had in mind for his monster of a machine was law enforcement and criminal justice.

In the area of law enforcement and criminal justice, the lie detector was frequently used to print newspapers stories about high profile criminal cases and court proceedings. The public seemed to have an insatiable need to know who did or did not pass the lie detector test. Newspapers quickly figured out that crime sells and soon had a cult following which has contributed to the book genres, tv shows, movies, and magazine articles of true crime that is so popular today.

Due to the ways in which the lie detector was known to yield imperfect results (drugs, the subject cheating, and prejudicial questioning) and because of other questionable uses, judges insisted that juries be the deciding factor in criminal cases, the lie detector was banned from American courtrooms. It was because of this ban that police officers continued to use lie detectors as an investigatory tool while judges said the results of such investigations are inadmissible in court even to the present day.

Even though Americans still can’t scientifically prove whether someone is lying or not, we still try. The next book, The Truth About Lying: How to Spot a Lie and Protect Yourself from Deception by Stan B. Walters is a book that attempts to teach ways to recognize a liar. Walters has a quite impressive resume which includes such things as teaching his skills to businesses, industries, and law enforcement agencies & academies. In addition to all of this Walters has also taught classes at the US Department of Defense, US Immigration and Naturalization Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. Walters is a member of the American Polygraph Association.


In a nutshell, The Truth About Lying describes ways in which people may get nervous when concocting or telling a lie. The key is to learn to be a great observer. It takes practice, but Stan Walters explains that liars are a bit like poker players and they all have their own “tell.” There is no one formula of behavior that fits all liars. It’s more like figuring out a person’s personal combination of behaviors. I found this book interesting, but not particularly out of the ordinary.

Have you ever taken a lie detector test or known someone who has? Have you ever observed behaviors that you thought indicated lying?