In This Article Lie Detection in a Forensic Context

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History of Lie Detection
  • Theories about Lie Detection
  • Counter-Interview Strategies
  • Laboratory and Field Research and the Ground Truth Problem
  • Individual Differences and Wizards in Lie Detection
  • Interviewing to Detect Deception
  • Lie Detection in Intelligence Interviewing

Psychology Lie Detection in a Forensic Context
Aldert Vrij, Bruno Verschuere
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0122


Lie detection is a major theme in “psychology and law,” which in turn is one of the main areas of applied psychology. Indeed, it is not difficult to understand why it is important to know whether someone is lying or telling the truth in police investigations, court trials, border control interviews, intelligence interviews, and so on. To aid lie detection, psychologists and practitioners have developed numerous lie detection tools. Such tools span the entire possible range from observing behavior, analyzing speech, and measuring peripheral physiological responses to recording brain activity. This article will introduce the reader to the main lie detection tools used to date. After presenting general overview texts about the topic, the article will briefly introduce the history of lie detection, followed by a presentation of the main theories that underpin lie detection tools. Attention will also be paid to liars’ efforts to fool those who try to detect their lies, as well as to an important technical issue: how to test the accuracy of these lie detection tools. The accuracy of lie detection tools can easily be tested in controlled laboratory settings, but lying in such settings is somewhat artificial. For example, examinees lie for the sake of the experiment, and their lies are condoned. The problem of testing the accuracy of lie detection tools in real-life field cases is that it is virtually impossible to determine with certainty when someone is lying and when he or she is telling the truth. This article also discusses the various lie detection tools. All tools face the same problem: a cue uniquely related to deception, such as Pinocchio’s growing nose, does not exist. It means that there is not a single cue (or cluster of cues) investigators can really rely upon. It also means that errors are frequently made when those tools are used. Lie detection without the use of tools is perhaps even more difficult, but a debate is going on as to whether some people have extraordinary skills to detect lies. After focusing on this “wizards in lie detection” debate, the article concludes by discussing two recent important developments in lie detection research. The first is “interviewing to detect deception” research. The key issue is that investigators can make the task of lying more difficult for interviewees, which, in turn, facilitates lie detection. The second is lie detection research specifically aimed at intelligence settings. It raises specific questions that have not been addressed in and cannot be answered by the traditional “police investigations” deception research.

General Overviews

The work cited here provides overviews of all main areas of lie detection (nonverbal, verbal, physiological, and brain activity). The authors of Granhag and Strömwall 2004 organized in their native Sweden a conference on lie detection for practitioners and invited ten leading international scholars to introduce work on nonverbal and physiological, but mainly verbal, lie detection research. This book is the result. Vrij 2008 offers a comprehensive account of nonverbal, verbal, and physiological lie detection tools, with an emphasis on the first two. Kleiner 2002 is a book on physiological lie detection that brought together authors representing the two main perspectives in physiological lie detection (anxiety-based and memory-based lie detection), which is a rare achievement. Lykken 1998 explains why the author is against anxiety-based physiological lie detection and presents his alternative memory-based tool. Verschuere, et al. 2011 is the most thorough text to date on memory-based lie detection. National Research Council 2003 is a thorough text about anxiety-based physiological testing, and Wilcox 2009 focuses on how such tests can be used in daily life. Royal Society 2011 is a good and accessible overview of brain-based lie detection.

  • Granhag, P. A., and L. A. Strömwall, eds. 2004. The detection of deception in forensic contexts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511490071E-mail Citation »

    The emphasis of this edited book is on verbal lie detection, but it also includes chapters on nonverbal cues to deception, physiological lie detection, cross-cultural lie detection, deception in children, false confessions, crime-related amnesia, training to detect deceit, beliefs about cues to deception, and wizards in lie detection. All authors are world-leading researchers in their area.

  • Kleiner, M., ed. 2002. Handbook of polygraph testing. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Scholars and practitioners contributed to this book. It gives a balanced view of physiological lie detection, which is a rare achievement in this research area, and covers both anxiety-based and memory-based physiological lie detection. Representatives of both perspectives present their own arguments and their concerns about the other perspective. Most chapters are easily accessible to a lay audience.

  • Lykken, D. T. 1998. A tremor in the blood: Uses and abuses of the lie detector. New York: Plenum Trade.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this book, first published in 1981, Lykken presents his view on anxiety-based physiological lie detection (he is against it) and introduces memory-based lie detection as an alternative, a method he developed in 1959. This is a very well-written book, accessible to a lay audience, and actually entertaining.

  • National Research Council. 2003. The polygraph and lie detection. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    The US government applies polygraph tests to screen employees who handle secret information. This practice is controversial, and the US Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate its utility after the debacle in the case of Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist accused of leaking sensitive information. This excellent report provides an independent assessment of the validity and utility of the polygraph by a panel of top scientists.

  • Royal Society. 2011. Brain waves module 4: Neuroscience and the law. London: Royal Society.

    E-mail Citation »

    The United Kingdom’s national academy of science published a series on the intersection of neurosciences and the law. This report discusses the current state of the art in brain-based lie detection and outlines its potential and limitations. This is an excellent introduction to some of the key issues in brain-based lie detection, suitable for both a lay audience and academics.

  • Verschuere, B., G. Ben-Shakhar, and E. Meijer, eds. 2011. Memory detection: Theory and application of the concealed information test. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511975196E-mail Citation »

    This edited book presents the state of the art in memory-based physiological lie detection. Apart from chapters on the theoretical and empirical foundation, a large part of the book relates to its application and the promises and perils associated with it. This is by far the most comprehensive account to date of memory-based physiological lie detection.

  • Vrij, A. 2008. Detecting lies and deceit: Pitfalls and opportunities. 2d ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    E-mail Citation »

    With more than 1,100 references included, this book presents a comprehensive overview of lie detection tools and research, particularly in the areas of verbal and nonverbal lie detection. It contains chapters on pitfalls and opportunities in lie detection and will be of interest to academics, practitioners, and a lay audience.

  • Wilcox, D., ed. 2009. The use of the polygraph in assessing, treating and supervising sex offenders: A practitioner’s guide. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    E-mail Citation »

    The use of polygraph tests in the assessment, treatment, and supervision of sex offenders is standard practice in the United States, and is being piloted in the United Kingdom. This edited book is geared toward practitioners, but is also a good read for those who want to gain an insight into how and why the polygraph is used with sex offenders.

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