Duped: Understanding Lies, With Brain Scans

This New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot about lying and brain scans is one of the most entertaining things I’ve read in a long time. It’s especially timely because the subject of liars is big right now in a couple of social circles I’m in: we’ve discovering that someone we know has been fabricating things for a while. Unfortunately, the lies are harmful, so it’s clear she has a problem, which is sad and fascinating at the same time. Many of our discussions are around understanding why people believe her, even when her latest lies are so outrageous. Many answers are in Talbot’s Duped; mostly confirming that humans are inherently bad lie detectors, and that career liars really really believe what they say — key to convincing their dupes. I’m definitely sending this to more than a few friends, plus it’s got interesting stuff about the ongoing quest to supplant the polygraph. Snip:

The most egregious liar I ever knew was someone I never suspected until the day that, suddenly and irrevocably, I did. Twelve years ago, a young man named Stephen Glass began writing for The New Republic, where I was an editor. He quickly established himself as someone who was always onto an amusingly outlandish story—like the time he met some Young Republican types at a convention, gathered them around a hotel-room minibar, then, with guileless ferocity, captured their boorishness in print. I liked Steve; most of us who worked with him did. A baby-faced guy from suburban Chicago, he padded around the office in his socks. Before going on an errand, Steve would ask if I wanted a muffin or a sandwich; he always noticed a new scarf or a clever turn of phrase, and asked after a colleague’s baby or spouse. When he met with editors to talk about his latest reporting triumph, he was self-effacing and sincere. He’d look us in the eye, wait for us to press him for details, and then, without fidgeting or mumbling, supply them.
One day, the magazine published an article by Steve about a teen-ager so diabolically gifted at hacking into corporate computer networks that C.E.O.s paid him huge sums just to stop messing with them. A reporter for the online edition of Forbes was assigned to chase down the story. You can see how Steve’s journalism career unravelled if you watch the movie “Shattered Glass”: Forbes challenged the story’s veracity, and Steve—after denying the charges, concocting a fake Web site, and enlisting his brother to pose as a victimized C.E.O.—finally confessed that he’d made up the whole thing. Editors and reporters at the magazine investigated, and found that Steve had been inventing stories for at least a year. The magazine disavowed twenty-seven articles.
After Steve’s unmasking, my colleagues and I felt ashamed of our gullibility. But maybe we shouldn’t have. Human beings are terrible lie detectors. In academic studies, subjects asked to distinguish truth from lies answer correctly, on average, fifty-four per cent of the time. They are better at guessing when they are being told the truth than when they are being lied to, accurately classifying only forty-seven per cent of lies, according to a recent meta-analysis of some two hundred deception studies, published by Bella DePaulo, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Charles Bond, Jr., of Texas Christian University. Subjects are often led astray by an erroneous sense of how a liar behaves. “People hold a stereotype of the liar—as tormented, anxious, and conscience-stricken,” DePaulo and Bond write. (The idea that a liar’s anxiety will inevitably become manifest can be found as far back as the ancient Greeks, Demosthenes in particular.) In fact, many liars experience what deception researchers call “duping delight.”


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