Segment from Bridge for Sale

Sweet Little Lies

Dr. Geoff Bunn helps tell the story of the lie detector, and its roots in pulp fiction.

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BRIAN BALOGH: One of the things that makes deception so tantalizing is that seemingly, anyone and everyone is capable of it. The choice of whether or not to lie is equal opportunity.

ED AYERS: But the fact is, before the turn of the 20th century, very few people would have thought about lying this way. Deception, it was thought, was something you were born into.

GEOFFREY BUNN: So by the end of the 19th century, European criminologists are trying to discern what makes somebody a criminal. And they have a very biological view of that. They think that there are born criminals. That if you are born a criminal, you are kind of an evolutionary throwback to a previous age.

BRIAN BALOGH: This is Geoff Bunn.

GEOFFREY BUNN: I’m a senior lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University in England.

BRIAN BALOGH: And he’s the author of the book The Truth Machine. And Bunn says this idea that there’s something inherent to all criminals, some sort of deception hard-wiring, leads to an interesting trend.

GEOFFREY BUNN: They think that they can measure these atavistic qualities. You must have a strange breathing pattern, or perhaps you’ve got an unusual blood pressure. There’s something weird about your skin.

BRIAN BALOGH: Psychologists, like Carl Jung, are using instruments to measure blood pressure and respiration rate, sweat levels, all with the assumption that their subjects are, in fact, criminals. And science can determine what makes them criminals.

GEOFFREY BUNN: But this idea, when it travels across the Atlantic, is transformed. And the lie detector is the result.

MALE SPEAKER: You’re about to see a factual documented demonstration of one of the most effective instruments science has placed in the hands of modern investigative agencies. This is a true account of the lie detector in action.

BRIAN BALOGH: When you think about lie detectors today, the little black box with needles moving up and down, that machine is actually a sidestep from these European soul machines of the 19th century. Remember, the soul machines already assumed that the subject was a criminal. The lie detector is trying to figure out whether or not the subject is a criminal.

And what’s so interesting about this transition from assuming criminality to looking for lies, is that it doesn’t come out of the laboratory. It comes out of pop fiction. A new genre of the novel in the early 20th century, the whodunit.

GEOFFREY BUNN: So what happens is that the novelists latch onto this concept of a machine for detecting criminality. But in the context of the whodunit story, you don’t want to have the reader guess the whodunit straight away simply by what he looks like. You want them to keep guessing. So the novelists start thinking, well, what about if you use this technology on people who are just ordinary citizens? On pretty, young ladies who nobody would suspect of having committed a crime?

It’s the novelists who wanted to keep the suspense in the story. Anyone in the story could be a potential criminal.

FEMALE SPEAKER: “There’s a contrivance recently invented by some college professor.”

BRIAN BALOGH: This is an excerpt from the 1907 crime novel, The Yellow Circle.

FEMALE SPEAKER: “It is a lie detector. With its aid, one can plumb the bottomless pits of a chap’s subconscious mind and fathom all the mysteries of his subliminal ego.”

BRIAN BALOGH: So they basically democratize deception. It’s available to anybody.

GEOFFREY BUNN: Exactly. The lie detector is invented on the back of a democratic impulse that everyone shares the same physiology.

BRIAN BALOGH: Well, no wonder this is done in America, we’re all free to be criminals here.

GEOFFREY BUNN: Well, exactly.

ED AYERS: In 1921, the fiction became a reality. Two rather strange characters made their way onto the scene, one on the East Coast of the US and one on the West Coast. And each claimed to have invented the modern lie detector.

GEOFFREY BUNN: On the East Coast, out of Boston, you have William Moulton Marston, who was a Harvard psychologist. And then on the West Coast, out of Berkeley, California, you have a younger man, Leonard Keeler, who is associated with the reforms of the American police, the Berkeley Police Department.

BRIAN BALOGH: The machines are basically variations of each other. Marston’s technique is to measure changes in blood pressure, while Keeler, over on the West Coast, builds a machine to measure blood pressure, respiration, and skin conductance. Or, what you and I would call sweat.

GEOFFREY BUNN: So I suppose you could say that Marston is regarded correctly as an inventor of the lie detector. Whereas, Keeler is properly known as the inventor of the polygraph.

BRIAN BALOGH: So do these machines work? What is the evidence of their effectiveness?

GEOFFREY BUNN: Keeler always said that the main use a lie detector is to intimidate a suspect into making a confession. Keeler said, if you have a suspect in the cells, tell them that in the morning they’re going to have a lie detector test. They have all night to stew over it. If they’d rather not take the test, they’re going to confess.

Ideally, you would get a confession rather than having to go through the rigmarole and procedural of the test itself. So they work in that sense.

ED AYERS: Right from the start, there are skeptics. Lots of people raised questions about the lie detector’s accuracy and ethics. But despite the push back, the machine manages, over the course of a century, to become a pop psychology juggernaut. How?

BRIAN BALOGH: Well, according to Bunn, the lie detector falls back into the realm from which it came– fiction.

GEOFFREY BUNN: So Marston, the Harvard trained psychologist, creates the lie detector in 1921, his version of it. He has a rather interesting career thereafter working in advertising in New York. He goes to Hollywood for a year. He writes novels. He writes self-help psychology textbooks.

And then, towards the end of his life, he is asked to consult about comics. Well I’m sure you’ve heard of Wonder Woman.

BRIAN BALOGH: Yes, even I’ve heard of Woman Woman.

GEOFFREY BUNN: The great American pop-culture comic book super-heroin. He creates Wonder Woman in 1941. And he gives Wonder Woman a lie detector of her own. She has a golden lasso of truth.

If you get caught in it, you have to tell the truth.

WONDER WOMEN: You must now tell the truth. You are working with the Falcon, and he’s working for the Nazis.

SPEAKER 12: Yes. Yes, I am.

GEOFFREY BUNN: Marston’s great rival of course, was Leonard Keeler, who started out on the West Coast.

BRIAN BALOGH: Oh, don’t tell me he creates his own character?

GEOFFREY BUNN: Not quite. There’s a fascinating connection there.

BRIAN BALOGH: In 1930, Keeler starts working in the lie detection unit at this new crime lab at Northwestern University in Chicago. And he and the lab seem to have a particular influence on one student, a guy named Chester Gould.

GEOFFREY BUNN: Chester Gould, of course, is the guy who creates Dick Tracy. Now, Dick Tracy is kind of by the early 1930s, is the latest in a long line of scientifically informed detective characters who uses lie detectors, as well as wits and brute force, and whatever, to solve crimes. So you have this rather nice parallel life situation.

You have Marston on the East Coast with Wonder Woman. You have Keeler on the West Coast with Dick Tracy.

ED AYERS: In 1937, Marston appeared in an advertisement for Gillette. He was hooking men up to a lie detector to determine– you guessed it– which razor blade they preferred. And the machine confirmed it was Gillette.

BRIAN BALOGH: Keeler even went so far as to make a cameo appearance in a 1948 film Call Northside 777.

Jimmy Stewart plays a Chicago reporter who tries to prove a man has been wrongfully convicted of murderer.

GEOFFREY BUNN: And at one point in the movie he says, OK, well, let’s hook you up to a lie detector and you tell me your story.

JIMMY STEWART AS P.J. MCNEAL: Would you be willing to take a lie detector test?

RICHARD CONTE AS FRANK WIECEK: Mr. McNeal, for 11 years I’ve been waiting for a chance to get at that box.

GEOFFREY BUNN: And the guy that Jimmy Stewart brings in to do the lie detector test is none other than Leonard Keeler himself playing himself.

LEONARD KEELER: Well, the only thing the machine is for is to record the emotional reactions of an individual. It’s a very sensitive criteria for emotional reaction, emotionality.

GEOFFREY BUNN: So there has always been a fascinating relationship between the lie detector and the world of fiction.

BRIAN BALOGH: But throughout the rest of the century, the lie detector just kind of creeps into reality.

By the 1980s, more than a million polygraphs were being administered in the US every year. They were mostly for pre-employment screening and to check out marital infidelity.

In 1988, Congress stepped in and passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act. It pretty much banned pre-employment polygraph testing.

ED AYERS: Today, the lie detector seems to fit most comfortably in the borderland between reality and fiction. Of course, the capital city of this borderland is the daytime talk show.

MAURY POVICH: You know what I’m going to do right now? I’ve never done this in my life. I’m going to look at the lie detector test.

ED AYERS: This is from the show hosted by Maury Povich.

MAURY POVICH: How many times have you cheated on him?


MAURY POVICH: You know what the lie detector test said?


MAURY POVICH: Over 25 times.

BRIAN BALOGH: It seems silly, but the idea that you can measure deception, that is as real as ever.

GEOFFREY BUNN: Since 9/11, there’s a huge interest in detecting lies from a distance, detecting lies over the telephone, and detecting lies through various techniques of pupillometrics, scanning the pupils, that kind of thing.

It’s an idea that won’t go away. It goes back to Pinocchio. Tell a lie, your body changes. We can see it. We can detect it. It’s irresistible. But a lie is quite a complex thing. You have to have a knowledge of the past, a knowledge of the future, and you have to have a knowledge of what’s at stake. You have to believe that you’re culpable. And you have to have an awareness of the context and the situation. You have to think about the context when you perform the act that led to the lie.

It’s quite a mentally complex act, telling a lie. And the idea that a lie detector can suddenly capture that instant is a rather naive one, I think.

BRIAN BALOGH: Thanks to Dr. Geoff Bunn for helping us tell that story. His book is called The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector.