Researchers develop alternative lie detector

Educational psychologists at the University of Utah are using eye-tracking technology to pioneer a promising alternative to the polygraph for lie detection.

The researchers’ efforts to commercialise their new technology reached a milestone recently when the University of Utah licensed the technology to Credibility Assessment Technologies (CAT), a company based in Park City, Utah.

Tracking eye movement to detect lies became possible in recent years because of improvements in technology. But the Utah researchers claim to be the first to develop and assess the software and methods for applying these tests effectively.

Using eye movement to detect lies contrasts with polygraph testing. Instead of measuring a person’s emotional reaction to lying, eye-tracking technology measures the person’s cognitive reaction. To do so, the researchers record a number of measurements while a subject is answering a series of true-and-false questions on a computer. The measurements include pupil dilation, response time, reading and rereading time, plus errors.

The researchers determined that lying requires more work than telling the truth, so they look for indications that the subject is working hard. For example, a person who is being dishonest may have dilated pupils and take longer to read and answer the questions. These reactions are often minute and require sophisticated measurement and statistical modelling to determine their significance.

According to Utah researcher John Kircher the results from experiments using the new system are as good as or better than the polygraph.

Besides measuring a different type of response, eye-tracking methods for detecting lies has several other benefits over the polygraph. Eye tracking promises to cost less, require one-fifth of the time currently needed for examinations, require no attachment to the subject being tested, be available in any language and be administered by technicians rather than qualified polygraph examiners.

The researchers still have more development work to do, but they hope the recent licensing will help them attract the additional funding necessary and interest from potential customers.

Numerous government agencies, such as the US Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, as well as the Department of Energy, use polygraphs regularly to screen employees and applicants for sensitive positions; these agencies are always looking for more effective ways to detect lies.