It may be surprising to many but deception has been a trait since life began. There’s nothing novel about it and nothing to suggest that it has increased or diminished over time. Deceit exists everywhere as a part of human nature and animal behaviour.

One of the main reasons for deception is that it helps all living things to survive. A chameleon will change colour to avoid a predator. It’s used online to get a date and it’s practised in business to baffle competitors.

Biologically it can be found across the spectrum of reptiles, birds, mammals, fish, insects and several plants. Invertebrates and bacteria display it too. So we might be forgiven for concluding that where there’s life, there is deceit.

Humans are the masters of deceit and practice it more frequently than all other species combined. Our deception is more refined and we have infinitely more reasons to use it. Perhaps this is because our brains are relatively larger and more developed than most species. However, whilst white lies may be acceptable in our society and even expected or demanded on occasion, there are circumstances when lying is socially and individually destructive.

When deception is harmful, polygraph machines are invaluable in exposing it.

Primitive methods of establishing deception

Lie detection technology is relatively new and certainly more civilised, when compared to the historic quest for the truth.

Dry mouth test

For example, the Chinese (around 1000 BC) used a readily available commodity to ascertain whether someone was lying or not. The alleged liar would be obliged to spend a little time with a mouthful of dry rice and then spit it out. If the rice wasn’t moist and remained dry, it was considered proof of deceit and guilt. The physiological basis of this assertion was that fear and stress dries the mouth. Of course there could be many reasons why a suspect might be frightened or anxious but irrespective of this, if you failed the dry mouth test, you would be executed.

Measuring the pulse

A few hundred years later around 300 to 250 BC a Greek physician (Erasistratus) measured the pulse in an attempt to detect deceit. In 1921 the same method would become part of polygraph examinations and is still used today.

Water tests

Other uncivilised methods, included trials by ordeal.  These were particularly popular in Europe amd were sometimes referred to as “Judgments of God”.  Defendants were set specific barbaric tasks to prove their innocence. Often they involved water or fire. These trials were based on the assumption that God would not allow an innocent man to suffer. In parts of Eastern Europe, during the 11th century, a suspect had to plunge a hand into boiling water and leave it submerged for a set period of time. If the hand emerged unblemished (which is impossible) it ‘proved’ the accused was innocent.

Another impossible test involved cold water.  The accused would be placed in a sack which would then be tied with a rope. The sack was submerged in cold water but if the suspect emerged alive, they would be judged guilty.  It was deemed, that water which is used in baptising, wouldn’t accept the person and therefore they were lying.

There were various ways the cold water test developed over years.  It was often used on women suspected of being witches.  Who can forget the ducking stools?

In the late 1500s courts in the Netherlands commissioned a university to research the boiling water method and its effectiveness in determining deception.  Logic prevailed and it was decided the test didn’t prove whether a defendant was lying or not.  However, the cold water method continued to be used throughout the 1700s before it was abolished.

Fire ordeals

Walking over hot coals or carrying hot irons for a period of time were two methods used to define innocence. If no blemishes were evident after the ordeal, or they healed rapidly, there was no guilt.  You can imagine how often that happened!

Luckily, as civilisation progressed and science developed, people began to appreciate that tests based on divine intervention were unreliable. Now we have state of the art polygraph machines to determine deception with fully qualified and high trained examiners.