Admit it. You’ve lied before. Maybe it involved drinking in high school. Maybe it involved strippers at a bachelor party. Maybe it involved a promise to pull out. Whatever the case may be, regardless of whether you got caught or ended up paying child support, you’ve lied at one point in your life. As the great Dr. House once said, “Everybody lies.”
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with lying. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re lying to tell a story, which is basically what I do as a writer, then it’s not wrong. If done right, it can actually be pretty damn sexy. If you’re lying to deceive a lover, cheat on your taxes, or prevent your children from knowing about condoms, then that’s pushing it.
I bring up lies because, in watching my share of both superhero movies and romantic comedies, there is one common theme that binds many of these conflicts. No, it’s not Robert Downy Jr. or Hugh Jackman’s sex appeal. It’s that a lot of these plots are built on someone lying and working way harder than they need to in order to keep up the lie.
Take “The Proposal” with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock for example. In addition to being one of my favorite romantic comedies of the past several years, it’s entire plot was built around a lie that Bullock’s character crafted and Reynolds had to help preserve. Sure, it made for a hilariously entertaining story, complete with awkward nude scenes and moments with Betty White, but it was all built on the foundation of a lie.
Why do I bring up lies? Well, to answer that, I’ll have to get a little personal again and this time, it has nothing to do with me sleeping naked.
I’ve gotten a lot of romantic advice over the years from friends and family. Some of it is good. Some of it is bad. Some of it just plain crazy and involves some rather improper uses of food. However, within the good advice I’ve gotten, there was one common theme and it amounted to this.
DON’T KEEP SECRETS.
I write that in all caps and bold because they didn’t just tell me this as a casual aside. They made it a point to really emphasize the importance of being honest with those you love. No relationship can really function in the long run when both sides are keeping secrets. Say what you will about the Bundys or the Simpsons, but they are honest with each other, often brutally so.
Beyond the advice, there are a lot of romantic stories that involve secrets, lies, and deception. It’s not always in the smooth, sophisticated ways of James Bond either. Stories about lies, affairs, and elaborate deceptions are basically the bread and butter of these stories.
I’ve certainly used those themes. In “Skin Deep” and “The Escort and the Gigolo,” a big chunk of the plot is built around certain lies and deception. Not all of them are intentional either. Sometimes, the characters just don’t have a reason to believe someone is telling the truth.
This brings me to another thought experiment of sorts. Granted, it’s not exactly the sexy kind, but it has the potential to be. It involves the ways in which we expose lies. At the moment, we really can’t be 100 percent sure if anyone is telling the truth. We can’t even be 80 percent sure. People who lie, cheat, and manipulate others still operate and thrive in this world. Just ask Bernie Madoff.
Our entire justice system is built on the understanding that we can’t exactly know for sure whether someone is guilty or innocent. We can put them under oath all we want. People can and will still lie. That’s why we have principles that presume innocence and require that we prove guilt, and the lies by default, beyond all reasonable doubt.
As good as our justice system has served us, to a point, it still struggles to uncover lies. It can interrogate and intimidate all it wants. It won’t always be able to get out the truth. In fact, it can even create even more lies in the process.
This is where the thought experiment comes in. What if we had a device that could, with nearly 100 percent accuracy, tell whether someone was lying? What would that do to our justice system? What would that do to our relationships with others? Would it effectively force us to be more honest with our friends, family, and intimate lovers?
This is another one of those thought experiments that isn’t overly fanciful. Creating devices to detect lies is not a new idea. In fact, it’s been in development for over a century.
Contrary to popular belief, however, there is no functioning “lie detector” yet. Those who claim there is are probably referring to a polygraph. A polygraph is not a lie detector. If anything, it’s a stress detector. It doesn’t detect lies. It detects the stresses on your body. I’m sorry if this completely changes how you see “Meet The Parents,” but that’s the hard truth.
For that reason, the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that the vast majority of research on the use of a polygraph for lie detection is unreliable, bias, and unscientific. It’s also why polygraph tests aren’t considered a reliable form of evidence in a court of law.
This is because it is possible to fool a polygraph. It’s been done before. There are even entire YouTube videos dedicated to helping people beat a polygraph. As a lie detector, it’s not much better than flipping a coin.
Beyond the polygraph, which only measures physiological responses, there is another emerging technology called fMRI, or Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. This technology is more functional in principle because it measures the very source of all lies, namely the human brain. However, our limited understanding of how the brain forms lies prevents it from being a full-fledged lie detector.
Even so, the use of fMRI has been shown to be an effective way at detecting lies. It’s still not perfect. In an episode of Mythbusters, one of the hosts was able to beat an fMRI. If it can be done on a TV show, then what hope does it have in a court of law with people who lie for a living?
Despite this flaw, research has shown that an fMRI was able to detect lies with 24 percent more accuracy than a polygraph. Overall, it’s accuracy is about 78 percent. That’s pretty good. If it were a winning percentage in baseball, it would be a playoff team. However, when you’re dealing with law and relationships, 78 percent just isn’t enough.
At the very least, the technology is improving. As the science of brain imaging continues to improve, it will eventually be possible to detect lies within someone’s brain with a degree of accuracy that would make every court drama much more boring.
There may even come a day where detecting lies is as easy as talking into a smartphone. Remember that smart blood I mentioned a while back? Well if someone had that in their system, then their brains could be scanned in real time. That means people could know whether they’re lying in an instant. That would basically destroy the entire pick-up artist community.
Now that kind of lie detection is a long way off. However, and I know I say this a lot, there may come a day within our life time when this technology is functional. Given the ongoing development into fMRIs, it may only be a matter of time before someone creates a system that can detect lies with 99 percent accuracy.
What will this mean for criminal justice? What will this mean for divorce proceedings? What will this mean for relationships in general when people know there’s a way for their lies to be exposed? It’s a strange and ominous idea to imagine, but the cold hard truth is that we may have to deal with sooner than we think.