Decoding the science and art of interrogation: Does lying come naturally to humans?


Interrogation is based on the premise that lying is an a priori proviso in the universe of discourse in which the procedural mechanics of the science acquires significance. It presupposes the need to lie as a sub-inherent quality of humankind. A subject, therefore, for interrogation — whether she happens to be a captive of war, a terrorist apprehended during a counter terrorism operation or a petty criminal — will resort to deception as a primary interface with the controlled environment that she is going to be subjected to. Indeed, this is the baseline or the opening set of postulations that has to be assumed in order for a study of interrogation to be undertaken.

Untruthfulness is clearly different from deception: The former is a behaviour that is typical to human beings alone, whereas deception could and indeed extend to other forms of living beings that fall under the ambit of entropy and decay. Although game theory seems to have modelled the possibility of deception in an intra-species stable communication system, the jury is still out about the intentionality factor. In other words, were a chameleon to adjust its colours to camouflage itself from a predator (or when some creatures release ink in order to distract, others feigning death!), the deception that is being displayed does not necessarily imply a conscious act. But a person resorting to a lie is cognisant of her conduct! Interrogation — in the classical sense (and not ones that are manipulated neuro-pathologically) — becomes relevant only when the subject is aware that she is hiding a fact that can theoretically be revealed.

Indeed, the need to lie is determined and bound by a vast array of shades. In interrogation of the conventional kind the primary reason is to deceive and preserve. Whereas the reach and range by which deception is engineered could vary, the need to preserve is normally motivated by a cause. The cause could be simple: Escape punishment. Or, it could be complicated: Preserve others, or even a cause that is higher than even self-preservation or preservation of others: the preservation of an ideal!  The fine distinction that divides the two may be difficult to fathom in the initial stages of a questioning process, but comes to the fore under protracted interrogation.

It is important to identify the “inner fortress” that the subject is attempting to preserve. Interrogation — of even the most stretched variety (where extreme discomfort is meted out to the subject of interrogation) — would fall by the wayside if this is not recognised. The accent should, therefore, be to unearth both the method by which deception is being constructed and the reason for the preservation. Discovery of the methodology that is being utilised for deception will determine and navigate the line of interrogation and — if innovatively employed — will breakdown the super-structure that a subject is endeavouring to preserve. In most cases the ability to enter the “inner fortress” would be tantamount to arriving at the truth.

But is preservation the only reason for lying? Are there motivations beyond such a defence mechanism that drives humans to lie? Is it possible that an instinct to erect imaginary walls of truth around oneself leads to utterances of untruth? An exploration of such behaviour meanders into the realm of psycho-pathology where classical interrogation may be rendered ineffectual.

An important school of thought — both in literature and science — is of the opinion that human nature (in the manner it distinguishes itself from other natures) takes recourse to lying even as a method of self-aggrandisement. Hellenic lore informs that it is the unusual gift of the muses to “speak many false things as though they were true”. Greek philosopher Aristotle illustrates honesty as a virtue only of self-presentation. Another philosopher of almost the same genre, Plato does not list honesty as a virtue in his reference to “noble lies”. He forbids poesy in his Republic, considering it to be an abomination to true philosophy. The Malmesbury philosopher Hobbes condemns metaphor as illusion, arguing that true statements are constructed of exact definitions and “perspicuous words.” But in life, surreal or otherwise, musings and metaphors cannot be done away with — life will cease to be what it is without the “little luxuries” of lies.

Findings in science do not quite contradict what a superior product (literature) of the same brain seeks to explain, albeit in a manner that is more elegant, less complicated. Deft manipulation of an area in the encephalon — dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region in the front of the brain — by methods that may not have yet left the laboratory seems to demonstrate that the brain activates itself in a manner which could result in a subject playing ambiguous roles, resulting in the person exhibiting dishonesty in situations in which she would have otherwise spoken the truth, especially if it was to her advantage. This is despite the fact that lying exhausts more “neural resources” than it does when a subject is telling the truth. Lies, deceit and the motivation for exhibition of deviant behaviour that encompasses the two may, therefore, not be as neat and tidy after all!

But can it be said that “lying’ comes naturally to humans? Or is there both resistance and abhorrence to it in an extra-ethical sense. In other words, would it be correct to state that a person hides truth only when there is a motivation to do so? The impetus for lying could (as was elucidated above) even override immense physical distress, for instance, when a subject is confronted with the consciousness that lying is mandated by a cause that is greater than the continuation as a physical entity, an existence that she has sacrificed in the altar of the cause she has sworn herself to long before she found herself in a controlled setting. But there are variants as was the case with a personage such as Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s command over his innards was so complete that he was able to place truth outside his system and examine it as if it were an object of assessment. The author of My Experiments with Truth would not tolerate lies even in jest. This has been borne out by a number of examples from his extraordinary life. However, the awesomeness of Gandhi’s life notwithstanding, it would have been of import to historians, psychologists and observers of the “truth-lie dichotomy” as to how the Mahatma viewed Yudhisthira’s half-lie: Aswathama Hatha (Aswathama is dead)... Kunjaraha (elephant).

The author is a conflict analyst and author of several bestselling books on security and strategy. Views expressed are personal.

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Decoding the science and art of interrogation: Does lying come naturally to humans?
Decoding the science and art of interrogation: Does lying come naturally to humans?
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