“Lie-Detecting Devices: Truth or Consequences?”

Washington Post staff writer Ariana Eunjung Cha reports. Excerpt:

NEW YORK — “Lie detectors,” those controversial assessors of truth, are making their way into everyday life.

Insurance companies use them to help catch people filing fraudulent claims. Suspicious spouses use handheld versions to judge whether their significant others are cheating. U.S. government interrogators use them to double-check analyses of who might be a terrorist.

Polygraphs, which have been used for decades, have been joined by new systems that purportedly analyze a person’s voice, blush, pupil size and even brain waves for signs of deception. The devices range from costly experimental devices that use strings of electrodes or thermal imaging to $19.95 palm-sized versions.

No studies have ever proven that lie detectors work. Many show that they assess truth as accurately as a coin flip; in other words, not at all. Still, some people have come to depend on them.

Liz Saul, a radio-station ad executive, got a call from a man who said he was from an Internet lottery company and wanted to buy $315,000 worth of advertising. He was eager and charming, but Saul thought that something was not quite right.

Her worries grew as he tried to cancel the contract and then reactivate it, and cancel and reactivate it again. Saul was in a quandary: If the ads started running and the man never paid, she would have wasted her time and her company’s. But if she dropped a sincere customer, she would have missed out on thousands of dollars in commissions.

She decided she needed a second opinion — from a machine.

As she and the man talked one day, Saul screened his voice with a “truth phone,” which, its maker says, measures inaudible microtremors in a person’s voice to determine the likelihood that he was lying. The digital numerical display that indicates stress level hit the danger zone. The guy was a faker, according to the machine.

Saul politely ended the call, and the contract.

“I don’t have to waste my time or build my hopes up thinking about something anymore. It helps me to live in a world of reality,” said Saul, 36, a Manhattan resident who bought the $3,000 device made by CCS International Ltd. from a local spy shop.

The successful marketing of pseudoscientific “voice stress analyzers” documented in this article reaffirms showman P.T. Barnum’s observation that “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

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