• Robb G. Best

The Ethical, Effective New Way to Spot Liars


We've all seen polygraphs in movies: the famous "lie detector" comes out, the suspect is strapped in, and now we the viewers can sit back in our chairs, ready to learn precisely what is true and what is not. However, in real life, polygraphs are notoriously unreliable. These devices measure stress levels only, and it turns out people are sometimes capable of lying without any anxiety, or conversely, of being full of anxiety while telling the truth.


If we as a society want a reliable way to root out lies at times when the truth matters most, we need a different approach.


Enter AIM, the Asymmetric Information Management technique. It's part of a new wave of cognitive lie-detection methods, based on the principle that our strategy when responding to interview questions differs dramatically depending on whether we're telling the truth or lying. The goal of AIM is to give suspects a clear opportunity to demonstrate their guilt or innocence via their own detailed report. Those small details are key to forensic investigations. They give investigators facts to check, witnesses to question, and clues to look into.


Using AIM means encouraging interview subjects to provide as much detail as possible, explaining to them that the longer and richer their story, the easier it will be to detect whether or not they're telling the truth. Research has demonstrated that when people with truthful accounts hear this advice, they cooperate, providing an in-depth reporting of events. At the same time, people with untruthful accounts find themselves strategically holding back on sharing information, worried about incriminating themselves.


This asymmetry of responses is the source of AIM's name. The interviewer can simply compare the length and detail of various subjects' accounts and determine the likely level of truthfulness from there.


Recently, researchers decided to test this approach. They recruited 104 subjects, who were sent on two "missions" to different places in a university, where they had to pick up and/or deposit intelligence material. All subjects were then informed there had been a data breach, making them a suspect. They were all thus interviewed. However, half were told to disclose the truth of their mission in order to convince the interviewer of their innocence. The other half were told to instead create a cover story about their whereabouts during the time of the breach.


In half of the interviews, the AIM technique was used. When this was the case, the rate at which the liars were caught went up from 48% (roughly random chance) to 81%. Granted, this was with a relatively small sample size, but the results certainly seem to merit additional testing. If all goes well, it looks like we could have a new and more reliable way to spot liars--no polygraphs needed.

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