How We Lie
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"Lying is a cooperative act" - Pamela Meyer

Deception is the act of concealment or distortion of the truth. It is a key facilitator in everyday life as it is innately social.[1] It is known that people fall victim to being deceived all the time, but what is not commonly understood is that in order to be deceived, one must consent to it. One must tell a lie, but it takes another to believe the lie in order for it to be effective, thus it is a cooperative act.[2] Deception has emerged from childhood only to become greater and more pervasive in adulthood. Thus the ability of young children to be deceptive is prevalent[3] and perhaps can be attributed to the fact that parents lie to their children all the time.[4] Currently, the use of functional MRIs to understand how the brain acts when lying provides important details towards which brain regions are involved in lying and what types of lies are produced .[5] In terms of crime, learning the biological and functional basis of lying is important because it will benefit society in lie spotting and eventually lead to truth telling. Deception lies at the heart of corruption with specific referral to terrorism, corporate fraud, leaking and withholding classified information, and so on.[6] Becoming more familiar with the underpinnings of deception could lead to a more honest, less suspicious society.

How to Spot a Liar


History of Lying

Natural Deception
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The tiger moth uses vocal mimicry
to evade predation.

The prevalence of deception has made its way through the ages and throughout the animal kingdom. Animal survival and fitness is dependent on deceptive behaviours. The most common examples include playing dead, pretending to not have found food in hopes of not having to share it and the most well-known, evolved survival skill, camouflage.[7] Camouflage takes another name then deception in nature, namely mimicry. Often animals will use visual or auditory forms of mimicry to pervade predators. For example, the mantid of Panama takes the shape of the plant leaves of radicchio or how tiger moths parody the ultrasonic click of toxic moths to avoid predation by bats.[8] These are only a couple of examples of how animals use deception It is evident that this mimicry is present in all life forms, including humans. Humans have been known to exhibit deceptive behaviour since the early ages of existence and constantly today. One can date back so far as 1641 when Descartes wrote about his “Deus Deceptor” in which he claimed this being is so clever and deceitful that it had the power to mislead him.[9][10] More recently, the autobiographical writer James Frey, who said to have wrote a truthful autobiography of himself, A Million Little Pieces, later revealed that he actually falsified accounts of his life.[11] Evidently, humans lie every day and all the time and in more than one way. Understatements, exaggerations, bluffs, white-lies, corporate fraud, identity theft, equivocations, concealments, phishing scams, organized crime; the list of types of deception that humans have created is endless. The reasons for our deceptions may attribute to the fact that we are born to learn how to lie and the older we get, the better we are at it.

Lying At Young Ages

Deception in children two to three years of age as proposed by Evans and Lee (2013) suggests that the ability to lie is almost innate as it can begin very early in child development. This recent paper provides evidence that supports the idea that deception is not only possible in young children, but that it is easily learned and mastered. In addition, the researchers evaluated that the children who were more likely to lie had better executive functioning. In this regard executive functioning refers to a child’s ability to have inhibitory control such that when reporting a lie, the truth is supressed.[12] The importance of such a finding emphasizes the notion that working memory and inhibitory control may place a major role in telling a lie. As such, deception is potentially a part of human nature and that its invoked emergence foreshadows an individual’s ability to grow and become better at lying. Jean Piaget, a child psychologist explains that lying can simply be considered a “natural tendency…spontaneous and universal.”[13] Lying being innate as well as being learned can be attributed to the fact that children must learn lying from somewhere, specifically someone. Parents play a significant role in a child’s ability to learn how to lie. Lee et al. (2012) illustrate how parents have used deception to elicit behavioural compliance from their children. The study compliments how different nationalities use lying as a parenting technique while still trying to reinforce honest behavior.[14] The notion of children learning how to lie stems from parenting techniques themselves. The implications of lying on a large scale have the potential to have prominent effects on the safety and maintenance of society, if intervention and exploitation of such effects are not intervened.[15]

Neural Imaging and Manipulation of Deception

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Activation of the left ACG, SMA and the left prefrontal cortex
involved in executing and planning deception.

Dorsal Lateral Prefrontal Cortex

The areas of the brain that show specific importance when deception is occurring include the left cerebellum, the left anterior cingulate gyrus, the left and right superior frontal gyrus/supplementary motor area, but most importantly the left dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DL-PFC).[16] The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning of movements, executive inhibitory control and executive functioning control. As such, the left DL-PFC has been found to play a role in preparing and executing deception. Research by Ito and others (2012) found that the left DL-PFC played a role in the preparatory phase of deception. When subjects knew in advance whether they had to produce a lie or not, there proved to have significant activation of the left DL-PFC than the group that did not have this knowledge ahead of time, such that they had to plan to lie. However, since there are different types of lies, both simple and complex, one brain area itself if not enough to conclusively control deception, rather a multitude of areas.[17]

Lie Detectability Effect

The Main Responses of Deception
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Figure1: Left Panel: shows activation in the right amygdala (A and B),
the right IFG (C and D), and the left PCC (E and F). Deceptive responses in these
regions yielded higher BOLD activation than truthful ones.

The lie-detectability effect is a method used to test whether deception in the brain changes when a subject believes the lie can be detected. Sip et al. found that regions of the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and the left posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) became activated when subjects produced false claims. As well, Sip and others (2013) found a significant correlation between believing a lie with the left temporal pole and the right hippocampus. The participants showed greater activation in these areas when they believed that their lie could not be detected. One’s emotional state and arousal level play a significant role when detection of lying is present, hence one’s behavioral will be subject to change as well, based on the difficulty of what is asked and their need to control their behaviour as others will observe them.[18][19][20]˛ As a result, the right hippocampus and left temporal pole were found to produce a greater BOLD activation effect when the lie detector was on. The temporal pole plays a role in the theory of mind, moral judgement and deception detection, which is suggestive that this region is associated with emotional responses induced during deception.[21] (Refer to Figure 1).

Modifying Deception

The notion that lying can be manipulated is nevertheless a true statement. Lying can be manipulated in a variety of ways. For one, a subject can be trained to become better at lying, when they learn to lie more often. Conversely, the subject can become worse at lying because they are better at telling the truth.[22] (Refer to Figure 2). In addition, the idea of deception is seen as the constant balance between choice and potential outcomes. Such that, when one is given the opportunity to make a false claim, the activation of the right caudate and IFG suggest that the individual must balance out the effort invested in telling and maintain the lie versus its potential rewards.[23]

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Figure 2: As seen above, subjects become more 
effective at telling a lie when they lie more frequently.

Imaging Techniques Reliability

To this day, there is much controversy surrounding the accuracy and efficiency of using advanced neuroimaging technologies for lie detection, especially in a legal setting. As the reliability and validity of polygraphs has been deemed controversial in the past[24], much interest has turned towards the capabilities of newer technologies for means of lie detection. Despite the debate, there is definitive evidence that proposes there is a distinct and significant difference in cognition between deception and truth telling, both of which have definite neurophysiological correlations that are detectable by fMRI.[25] With specific activation of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate regions, as detected by the fMRI, these regions are highly active when trying to inhibit a false claim (i.e. truth-telling).[26] However, deception detection is not an easy task as there are many variables to take into account. One relationship to take into account is the accuracy-confidence correlate. This correlate defines the relationship between the accuracy of one’s perceptions based on one’s confidence. Here, it is noted that one’s confidence in can change the accuracy of a statement, such that greater confidence correlates with a more accurate statement.[27] Another challenge arises, when trying to use advanced neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI in a legal setting. For instance, just like polygraph tests, participants must be willing to partake in the test. Further limitations arise, as the slightest head movement can obscure the scan, as well as unresponsive answers will not yield a result. Interestingly, in psychiatric patients whom experience delusions or believe their own lie, using an fMRI become invalid as deception is not detected in these individuals.[28] Moreover, the transfer from laboratory use to a real world setting is certainly accompanied by a variety of challenges.

Neuroscience and Crime

Neuroethics and Neuropolitics

There are tremendous ethical and political confounds that are associated with relying on neuroscience as a means detecting crime etiology and its use in policy formation. Understanding the fundamentals between the brain and environmental interactions needs to be standardized before such implementation could occur. Neuroethics can be defined as the ethics behind neuroscience research and the moral implications of its results and applications.[29] Neuropolitics can be loosely defined as the political impact of policy makers to make such policies based on the advantages and disadvantages in neuroscience and its social impact.[30] In short, neuroimaging would not only be a scientific process but also a political and ethical one. This growing field is extremely vast as its research examines the entire domain of biology, neuroscience and crime collectively. This task is multifaceted and as such this “biocriminological” research can only predict correlations rather than causations. As such, a criminal defendant would still be able to argue reasonable doubt against an fMRI lie detector, as the results are not definitive, converse to DNA identification. On an ethical level, question still remains as to whether or not there is precise definition of lying.[31] Likewise, is there a state of lying in every human being, no matter race, religion, social status, sexual orientation, etc., that is universal? It is clear that this area of neurocriminology is largely unexplored and more research must be conducted such that improvements in accuracy may lead to complementary lie detection methods coupled with today’s standardized methods. This emerging field is still very new, and without much research to date, all that is formulated results in theories and speculation for the future.

Interrogation Methods

For much of the social interaction between individuals, emotional and nonverbal behaviour usually illicit stronger messages than verbal messages do. Nonverbal communication, as regulated by the brain’s emotional centres, reveal how different brain regions can essentially modulate a conversation and judgement between two interacting individuals.[32] Taken in a more legal sense, interrogation portrays this interesting dynamic between the interrogator and the suspect. In a study done by Jacob et al. (2012) researchers concluded that the activation of the amygdala and the fusiform gyrus were activated when subjects viewed nonverbal behaviour and facial emotions. These regions of the brain are associated with discriminating facial expressions and indicative of a guilty or fearful stimulus from the interrogator.[33] However, interrogators have been proven in the past to misread nonverbal cues and also illicit false emotional responses from suspects due to their confidence in judging the suspect’s guilt, thus ignoring other informative cues that refute their bias.[34] Thus, nonverbal comprehension becomes more complex when both deceptive verbal and nonverbal stimulus occur at the same time.

Illusions and Deception

Perception Deceptions

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Figure 3: Curved motion causes the eye position to perceive more misdirection,
causing an individual to be tricked into believing that the magician’s right hand actually
grabbed the coin from the left hand.

The notion of being deceived by optical illusions is not a novel occurrence as many people enjoy watching magic shows as a form of entertainment. The fascination of magic tricks and illusions stems from the fact that even when one’s attention is solely focused on the trick, our senses are still deceived. An exemplary form of where an individual’s deficits in cognitive perceptions are taken advantage of is in a magician’s design of a trick. Otero-Millian et al. (2011) discovered that curved motion is employed into a magicians hand trick to generate a greater misdirection of the saccadic oculomotor systems than linear motions.[35] (Refer to Figure 3). In addition to motion, when the eye tracks movements of an object, the eye is able to stabilize the movement of the object via smooth pursuit eye-movements,[36] such that the movement of the object is seen as a smooth image. However, these are movements are often incomplete which can result in illusions of movement. For example, Haarmeier et al. (1997) described a patient who perceived the stationary world in the opposite direction, due to the bilateral lesioning of the extrastriate cortex. This damage leads to seeing the world in constant motion, causing the patient to live with severe nausea and vertigo.[37] As such, illusions are able to deceive us during normal and damaged brain functioning.

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are a set of neurons that are found in the prefrontal cortex, the supplementary motor cortex and primary somatosensory cortex that fire when an individual performs or observes someone else perform an action.[38] In relation to deception detection, if these neurons fire just by the witnessing of an action, say a criminal offence, perhaps testing the firing of these neurons on criminal and witnesses could provide more evidence to support one’s testimony. Mirror neurons are also known to fire when one shows or observes empathy. Cognitive empathy is related to deception such that empathy may have evolved by being able to manipulate and deceive others.[39] Under this regard, using mirror neurons to detect between genuine empathy and false empathy may pose some complications.

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Figure 4: CCK neurons fire onto dopaminergic neural pathways
which cause an increase in release of opioids.

The Placebo Effect

The placebo effect is loosely understood as deceiving a patient with an inert substance and observing patient responses. For much of history, the placebo was seen as having inept qualities in patient treatment and believed to only produce “imaginative treatments”, however recent research provides evidence that distinct neural occurrence may provide some form of treatment. The placebo effect relays how deception can also be used in a positive manner. Approximately two-thirds of patients with mild medical issues receive some positive health effects.[40] Much of the placebo effect research is rooted in areas such as psychosis disorders and in pain perception. Research on the effect of placebos on pain has proven that the placebo can lower to perception of pain, by firing CCK neurons which act as agonists on the dopaminergic, such that more opioids are released. (Refer to Figure 4). Opioids serve to reduce pain, such that the placebo can have result in physiological responses.[41] In short, deception could even be speculated to be used as a therapeutic treatment for pain.

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