Dr Stephen Moston
Déjà vu: “a feeling of having already experienced the present situation”
There’s a new article (April 23, 2021) in Policing Insight, ‘Telling the truth: Time for an evidence-based policing approach to lie detection’, by Paine and Porter (2021) which over its roughly 1300 words spends about 1000 words efficiently and accurately debunking a variety of lie detection methods, before outlining a new lie detection technique (the remaining 300 words) called asymmetric information management, which also goes by the catchy acronym AIM. This new lie detection technique is introduced as a quite a game changer. Unlike pseudoscientific approaches, Paine and Porter point out, AIM is based on scientific research. It’s worth directly quoting Paine and Porter here.
“The research is clear that to accurately detect deception one should dispense with the pseudoscience approaches. Instead the key is to pay attention to what people are saying. Those telling the truth can provide detailed accounts of what happened. Those who are lying however are less able to do so.
New lie-detection research on the Asymmetric Information Management (AIM) technique (Porter et al., 2020) has shown that we can make it easier to detect if suspects are innocent or guilty by explicitly informing them that more detailed statements are easier to accurately classify as genuine or fabricated.
These simple and easy-to-administer instructions result in different verbal strategies being adopted by truth tellers and liars. Truth tellers are able to be more verbally forthcoming, while liars withhold more information.
Memory is not like a video recording of an event and often people struggle to recall information. As a result of this, when providing new information truth tellers may correct themselves, be slightly unsure of certain details or may provide information which is inconsistent.
Despite common misconceptions, inconsistency is not a sign of deception. In fact only a truth teller is unafraid to correct their statement; liars will rarely do so.
In conclusion, policing is founded on eliciting information from people who may, or may not, be seeking to deceive. In the absence of specific training or guidance for officers on lie-detection there remains a risk that officers will resort to unsupported, and inaccurate, popular myths about how to detect lies which could undermine successful investigation.
The time has come for policing to respond to the increasing wealth of research on what works in lie detection, and to develop guidance to support officers in carrying out investigations.”
The Paine and Porter (2021) article is very similar to an earlier piece by Porter (2020), ‘Spotting liars is hard – but our new method is effective and ethical’. Both articles are essentially promotional pieces showcasing a new research publication called ‘Lie-detection by strategy manipulation: Developing an asymmetric information management (AIM) technique’.
My feeling of déjà vu doesn’t come from having read two similar articles by the same author (that would be very harsh, and quite hypocritical on my part!). Instead, it comes from reading about yet another lie detection technique, and the inevitable claim that this time it’s going to work.
There are only so many times you can hear this before you start to spot a pattern. A new lie detection technique enjoys a brief 15 minutes of fame, before the inevitable backlash drives it into the background. What sort of criticism is the AIM research likely to encounter?
For a start, it’s a small(ish) sample size of college students, and it’s a low-stakes topic. Both are ever-present lines of attack in critiques of lie detection studies. Then comes the realisation that the observed differences (which I will repeat, were statistically significant) between those trained in AIM versus those not trained in AIM (the experimental design) refer to the different average performance levels between groups. In other words, the technique doesn’t say anything about whether an individual is or is not lying. The findings describe a general pattern that occurs between groups. That said, this is not how the study will be read by those determined to believe that lie detection is possible.
Instead, the study will be taken as proof that:
Truth tellers will correct their statements
Liars will not correct their statements
Or words to that effect.
In sum, while the research study is a nice piece of academic work (it really is), it will inevitably feed the misconceptions that (a) lie detection is possible, and (b) that it is only a matter of time (and grant money) before a foolproof lie detection technique based on the technique is developed.
To repeat the conclusion of Paine and Porter: “The time has come for policing to respond to the increasing wealth of research on what works in lie detection, and to develop guidance to support officers in carrying out investigations.”
This is correct. And here is the guidance officers need:
Lie detection does not ‘work’ (at least not to the standards that courts would accept).
In all probability lie detection will never ‘work’.
The consequences of errors in lie detection can be catastrophic.
Interviewers should NOT under any circumstances attempt to detect deception.
Ok, that’s not very exciting, not very positive. But it is correct. Skepticism in the face of a desire to believe is usually ineffective so we can expect even more new lie detection techniques in the coming years.
As John Fogerty might say: “It’s like déjà vu all over again”.*
Paine, C., & Porter, C. (2021, April 23). Telling the truth: Time for an evidence-based policing approach to lie detection. Policing Insight. https://policinginsight.com/features/analysis/telling-the-truth-time-for-an-evidence-based-policing-approach-to-lie-detection/
Porter, C. (2020, December 4). Spotting liars is hard – but our new method is effective and ethical. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/spotting-liars-is-hard-but-our-new-method-is-effective-and-ethical-151035
Porter, C. N., Morrison, E., Fitzgerald, R. J., Taylor, R., & Harvey, A. C. (2020). Lie-detection by strategy manipulation: Developing an asymmetric information management (AIM) technique. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 9(2), 232-241. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2020.01.004
* Yes, I know it wasn’t his originally, but I like the song.