The Mix

So, do they know they're lying?

True lie detectors: Getting to the bottom of Enron…and the Bush administration…and liars everywhere.
Today's article "Trial of the True Believers" explores the similarities in the defenses that Enron and the Bush administration have put forth when accused of lying. Are they knowingly lying? Are they willfully ignorant? Are they aware that they're lying, but think it's for a higher cause?

Well, who cares? What's wrong is wrong, right? As one AlterNet commentator wrote, "It is very hard for me to believe a liar, cheat, thief and murderer isn't aware of what they are doing." Intent is an important questions. In a court of law, what you intended to do, and whether you know something is wrong does play a part in the case.

So bring on the polygraphs. The only problem being that polygraph tests aren't such a good measure of lying. In the Enron case, the judge sided with the prosecution in keeping a polygraph test that Skilling took out of the proceedings. This means the test most likely indicated that Skilling passed muster. Polygraph tests, as NY Times writer Robin Henig writes,
detect not the lie but the anxiety about the lie. The polygraph measures physiological reponses to stress, like increases in blood pressure, respiration rate and electrodermal skin response. So it can miss the most dangerous liers: the ones who don't care that they're lying, don't know that they're lying, or have been trained to lie. It can also miss liars with nothing to lose if they're detected, the true believers willing to die for the cause.
New research suggests another component in getting to the bottom of lying.

It's an interesting irony that the President himself has promoted this new lie-detection technology as a tool in -- you guessed it -- the war on terror. Scientists now see evidence that Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can detect neurological evidence of the decision to lie.

You may recognize mention of the fMRI from research last month that suggested that blind partisanship in politics is fueled more by emotion than by reason. (um, insert a respectful "duh" here -- it's always nice when science catches up with common sense.)

Private companies are now looking at employing the technology -- and see great uses for it in trials like Enron, sensitive security situations such as airports, and in detainment facilities like Guantanamo.

The technology now being developed "might eventually be able to…predict whether someone intends to lie -- even before he or she has made a decision about it." But there is a fallacy involved in equating intent with action. As one researcher accurately noted, with her use of the technology, "I've taken away your right to make a decision about your response. It's the ultimate in invasion." Just because you're thinking about lying doesn't mean you will lie.

Slippery territory.

Both Wired and the NY Times magazines have written up great pieces on the research. Read 'em, and then weigh in on its potential uses.

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Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an editorial fellow at AlterNet.