People who claim to have information "of interest" to the U.S. government walk into American embassies every day. The information they profess to possess covers a broad range of critical topics, including bomb warnings or tips on the location of wanted criminals.

Some offer fabricated information to assess how the government will react--an intelligence-gathering technique called a provocation. Other walk-ins provide accurate leads and welcome warnings, and are genuinely interested in helping the U.S. government. Telling one from the other poses a significant challenge, say embassy officials, due to the volume of volunteered information and the lack of scientifically supported techniques for determining intent.

To help in the quest for such techniques, a number of psychologists and other scientists are beginning to work more closely with local law-enforcement and government agencies such as the CIA.

"We can use our scientific training to study systematically exactly the kinds of situations that are of interest to practitioners [of deception detection]," says Bella DePaulo, PhD, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an expert in the field of detecting deception.

Microanalysis holds promise

Martha Davis, PhD, a visiting scholar at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, is doing exactly that. After 13 years consulting with homicide detectives in the New York Police Department, Davis decided to put her intuitions about nonverbal cues to the test.

"I didn't want to be put with the clairvoyants. I wanted this to have a research basis," says Davis.

She is closely analyzing the videotaped confessions of criminals, where some of the criminals minimize their participation in a crime, while others tell the truth. Because she has information from the investigation of these crimes, Davis can link confessions with the actual details of the incidents and learn what behavior distinguishes the liars from the truth-tellers.

If a confession is flagged using criteria developed by Davis, the utterance turns out to be untruthful about 90 percent of the time. However, around 60 percent of the lies told escape detection.

One detection criterion, says Davis, is that liars tend to subtly repeat fallacious details of a story.

"These deception cues tend to be of a different character," than most of the cues studied by psychologists, says Davis. "They are more specific, more concrete and more lexical"--in other words, more grammar or word-related. One potential application of this research, which was initially part of a government-supported project, could be to train interviewers to perform the required linguistic analysis in real time, without relying on videotape.

Government agents often face an additional challenge when seeking to detect lies by people from cultures other than their own, says Charles Bond, PhD, a psychology professor at Texas Christian University.

A study by Bond found that people detected lies spoken by people in different cultures, even when being spoken to in a language they do not understand, with 51.25 percent accuracy--better than chance, but not much.

In the study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Vol. 26, No. 3), Bond asked 120 American undergraduate students and 60 Jordanian students to judge truth-telling in a videotaped speech in which a student described someone they did not like either in a way that was in concert with their feelings or in glowing terms. Participants judged more accurately when watching a video of someone from their own culture, making correct assessments 54.27 percent of the time, still not much above chance.

"Jordanians exhibit more head nodding; in general they are more nonverbally active than the Americans," says Bond. Americans who are not attuned to this difference may incorrectly judge that a Jordanian is nervous and thus lying, he says.

Bond has discussed his findings with agents from the CIA and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), though he notes that unlike most psychologists, the agencies are interested more in specific situations and less in general principles.

High-stakes lying

While emerging research by psychologists can benefit the CIA, the preponderance of their research to date has focused on a type of untruth that's not an agency focus--inconsequential lies. This type of lying is similar to the vast majority of lies people tell every day, such as that they enjoyed an unpalatable dinner, says DePaulo.

By comparison, the lies that concern the CIA and other government agencies are highly motivated lies, such as information volunteered at an embassy or the confession of a criminal, she explains. And according to research she and others have conducted, "The more you care about getting away with your lies, the more cues there are to deception," says DePaulo.

In a meta-analysis published in Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 129, No. 1), DePaulo found that cues such as increased vocal pitch, brief responses to difficult questions and less-compelling stories came to light more often during motivated lies. Deceptive stories also tend to be suspiciously perfect, without unusual details, she found.

Such research provides useful information, to be sure, but government agencies want mission-specific studies as well, says Gary W. Strong, who works with deception-detection specialists as the manager of Behavioral and Biometrics Programs in the DHS Science and Technology Directorate.

"DHS customers [including intelligence agents]...are mostly interested in applications that can further their current missions," says Strong. "Advances in science that can be directly applied to these missions are of great interest."

And APA has been helping support such advances and applications. "Understanding what the agencies need has been a central focus for us," says Geoff Mumford, PhD, APA's director of science policy.

Mumford coordinated a workshop in July 2003 with former APA Senior Scientist Susan Brandon, PhD, the RAND Corp. and the CIA, in which DePaulo, Bond and Strong all participated. The workshop, "Science of deception: integration of theory and practice," was funded by the CIA and brought together researchers with operational staff from the intelligence community to brainstorm about potential research applications and help stimulate new research agendas.

Further Reading

  • Bond, C.F. Jr, & Atoum, A.O. (2000). International deception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(3), 385-395.

  • DePaulo, B.M., Lindsay, J.J., Malone, B.E, Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K., & Cooper, H. (2003). Cues to deception. Psychological Bulletin, 129(1), 74-112.

  • Ekman, P., O'Sullivan, M., & Frank, M.G. (1999). A few can catch a liar. Psychological Science, 10(3), 263-266.