Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

The Lie Detectors

Alder, K. (2007). The lie detectors: the history of an American obsession. New York: Free Press.

Many scientists and tinkerers are driven to discover a machine that will tell us when someone is lying. Unfortunately, many have claimed success, sufficiently so that the machine called a "lie detector" is in common use in police stations, government agencies, and even by some company employment agencies. The lack of scientific evidence for their accuracy is irrelevant. The report by the National Academies saying they were worthless also does not slow them down. And even today, scientists rush to use detection of facial expressions, micro-moods, voice tremors, and neurological measurements to detect when people lie, despite all the evidence that shows that at best these machines reflect emotional state, which is not the same as lying. Seasoned liars can lie their way through the tests. Nervous, non-confident individuals can fail even while telling the truth, in some cases found guilty in trial, even though they were innocent.

How does this happen? The story is a fascinating one: Ken Alder, a historian of science at Northwestern University tells it wonderfully. Highly recommended.

Link to this book at The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession