Lie Detection

The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology. (June 2005); 16(2): 357 – 369. ISSN 1478-9949 print/ISSN 1478-9957 online # 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd DOI: 10.1080/14789940412331337353


  • Humans are in general poor lie detectors. In experimental settings, the ability of the average person to catch a liar is rarely above 60% (DePaulo & Rosenthal, 1979; Vrij, 2000; Zuckerman, Spiegel, DePaulo, & Rosenthal, 1982).
  • Early societies made use of elaborate and creative procedures for detecting liars, commonly based on torture or some form of ‘trial by ordeal’ from which a higher power was expected to protect the innocent truth teller from harm; versions of such trials by ordeal have been described in ancient Greece, pre-Christian Scandinavia, Iceland, Polynesia, Japan, and Africa (Segrave, 2004).
  • In the Middle Ages, the honest man in some parts of Europe was expected to be able to hold his arm in boiling water longer than a liar, while in Scandinavia, a woman accused of adultery was required to ‘clear herself with the iron,’ that is, hold a red-hot iron for a short time: if her hands burnt she was guilty of adultery.
  • In China suspects were required to chew rice powder and spit it out; if the powder was dry, the suspect was guilty (Sullivan, 2001; Trovillo, 1939).
  • In the late 19th century the Italian criminologist Lombroso was among the first to adapt this type of reasoning and physiological notions to lie detection by monitoring changes in blood volume during interrogation to infer a suspect’s veracity (Larson, 1932).
  • Early in the 20th century the Austrian Benussi investigated the relationship between lying and multiple physiological measures, including blood pressure, pulse, and breathing rate. From his research Benussi concluded that lying was accompanied by a change in the ratio of expiration to inspiration, the so- called ‘Benussi ratio’ (Larson, 1932).
  • In Marston’s lie test blood pressure was measured intermittently during questioning using a standard blood pressure cuff and stethoscope. He reported high positive correlations between lying and changes in systolic blood pressure, and claimed to have discovered the specific lie response, predicting ‘the end of man’s long, futile striving for a means of distinguishing truth-telling from deception’ (Marston, 1938, p. 45).

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