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Watching the secretly recorded 60 Minutes footage of disgraced former Defence chief scientist Steven Wilce lying his way through an interview with a journalist posing as a recruitment consultant, you have to wonder at the ease with which Wilce rattled off his deceptions.

Liar extraordinaire: Steven Wilce

Liar extraordinaire: Steven Wilce

Wilce held the high-paying for five years, during which time he had high-level security clearance. A panel of experts who vetted him for the job included at least one senior scientist.

Last night I watched on TV a weepy trustee of Diabetes Manuwatu given a statement in court as her colleague Adrian Lawrence Coombe was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail after defrauding the organisation of $130,000.

Then I read the following in the New Yorker magazine, which featured a rare story from New Zealand recently, on the bizarre case of Colin Bouwer, the psychologist from the University of Otago who killed his wife in 2000 and is now serving a stretch in prison. Bouwer was another one who embellished his CV, lied about his past and came across as perfectly charming – before the horrific truth was revealed.

As a rule New Zealanders are not known for being introspective. They are modest, outward-looking people who live in big landscapes and most of them probably find American-style self-examination to be a bit narcissistic, although they are far too polite to say so. The iconic New Zealander is Sir Edmund Hillary, the self-effacing climber of Mt. Everest, who always insisted on sharing the credit with his Sherpa climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay. This climate of trust and humility is one reason that visitors fall in line with the country, but it may also make New Zealanders vulnerable to hustlers and con artists who do not play by the rules.

Are we more vulnerable to hustlers and con artists than, say, the British or the Americans? What’s the answer?

Science to the rescue

Unfortunately, deceitfulness is such a widespread trait among people, that scientists are being put to work to try and come up with techniques to better pick the lairs among us.Take this research from the University of Utah:

Educational psychologists John Kircher, Doug Hacker, Anne Cook, Dan Woltz and David Raskin are using eye-tracking technology to pioneer a promising alternative to the polygraph for lie detection. The researchers’ efforts to commercialize their new technology reached a milestone recently when the University of Utah licensed the technology to Credibility Assessment Technologies (CAT).

Other researchers claim they’ve improved methods of using handwriting to detect liars.

The researchers utilized a computerized tablet that measured the physical properties of the subject’s handwriting, which are difficult to consciously control (for example: the duration of time that the pen is on paper versus in the air, the length height and width of each writing stroke, the pressure implemented on the writing surface). They have found that these handwriting characteristics differ when an individual is in the process of writing deceptive sentences as opposed to truthful sentences.

Interestingly, some recent research in PNAS showed that those behaving dishonestly show additional activity in brain regions  that involve “control and attention”.

Using neuroimaging, psychologists looked at the brain activity of people given the chance to gain money dishonestly by lying and found that honest people showed no additional neural activity when telling the truth, implying that extra cognitive processes were not necessary to choose honesty. However, those individuals who behaved dishonestly, even when telling the truth, showed additional activity in brain regions that involve control and attention.

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