Promoting Honesty in Children, or Fostering Pathological Behaviour?

Emerging Varieties of Lie Detection Toys and Games

How to Cite

Oravec, J. A. (2023). Promoting Honesty in Children, or Fostering Pathological Behaviour? Emerging Varieties of Lie Detection Toys and Games. M/C Journal, 26(3).
Vol. 26 No. 3 (2023): blocks
Published 2023-06-27


Many years ago, the moral fable of Pinocchio warned children about the evils of lying (Perella). This article explores how children are learning lie-related insights from genres of currently marketed polygraph-style “spy kits”, voice stress analysis apps, and electric shock-delivering games. These artifacts are emerging despite the fact that polygraphy and other lie detection approaches are restricted in use in certain business and community contexts, in part because of their dubious scientific support. However, lie detection devices are still applied in many real-life settings, often in critically important security, customs, and employment arenas (Bunn).

A commonly accepted definition of the term “lie” is “a successful or unsuccessful deliberate attempt, without forewarning, to create in another a belief which the communicator considers to be untrue” (Vrij 15), which includes the use of lies in various gaming situations. Many children’s games involve some kind of deception, and mental privacy considerations are important in many social contexts (such as “keeping a poker face”). The dystopian scenario of children learning basic honesty notions through technologically-enabled lie detection games scripted by corporate developers presents frightening prospects. These lie detection toys and games impart important moral perspectives through technological and algorithmic means (including electrical shocks and online shaming) rather than through human modelling and teaching. They normalise and lessen the seriousness of lying by reducing it into a game. In this article I focus on United States and United Kingdom toys and games, but comparable lie detection approaches have permeated other nations and cultures. Alder characterises the US as having an “obsession” with lie detection devices (1), an enthusiasm increasingly shared with other nations.

Playing with the Truth: Spy Kits, Voice Stress Apps, and Shocking Liar

The often-frightening image of an individual strapped to sensors and hooked up to a polygraph is often found in movies, television shows, and social media (Littlefield). I construe the notion of “lie detection” as “the use of a physiological measurement apparatus with the explicit aim of identifying when someone is lying. This typically comes with specific protocols for questioning the subject, and the output is graphically represented” (Bergers 1). Some lie detection toys utilise autonomic or unintentionally-supplied input in their analyses (such as the vocal changes related to stress); with networked toys, the data can subsequently be utilised by third parties. These aspects raise questions concerning consent as well as the validity of the results. Developers are producing related artifacts that challenge the difference between truth and lies, such as robots that “lie” by giving children responses to questions based on the children’s analysed preferences rather than standard determinations of truth and falsity (Zhu).

Early lie detection games for children include the 1961 Lie Detecto from Manning Manufacturing. The technologies involved are galvanometers that required a 9-volt battery to operate, and sensors strapped to the hands of the subjects. It was reportedly designed “for junior G-men”, with suggested test questions for subjects such as "Do you like school?" Its ratings included "Could Be" and "Big Whopper" (“TIME’s New Products”). Lie detection had also been projected as fertile ground for children’s own educational research ventures. For example, in 2016 the popular magazine Scientific American outlined how young people could conduct experiments as to whether cognitive load (such as working on complex puzzles) affects the subject’s galvanic input to lie detection devices (Science Buddies). However, the Science Buddies’ description of the proposed activity did not encourage children to question the validity of the device itself.

In organisational and agency settings, polygraph-style strategies are generally labour-intensive, involving experts who set up and administer tests (Bunn). These resource-intensive aspects of polygraphs may make their use in games attractive to players who want theatrical scripts to act out particular roles. An example of a lie detection toy that models the polygraph is the currently marketed Discovery Kids’ Electronic Lie Detection Portable Spy Kit, in which children go through the procedures of attaching the polygraph’s sensors to a human subject (Granich). The roles of “spy” and “detective” are familiar ones in many children’s books and movies, so the artifacts involved fit readily into children’s narratives. However, the overall societal importance of what they are modelling may still be beyond children’s grasps. Users of the comparable spy kit Project MC2 are given the following characterisation of their lie detection device, designed for individuals aged 6 and older:

When someone lies, his or her body often produces small reactions from being nervous or stressed. One of those reactions is a small release of sweat. That moisture increases the skin’s electrical conductivity, or galvanic skin response, and the lie detector reads it as a fib. That's why the lie detector’s clips go on the fingers, because there are lots of sweat glands in your hands. Product includes: Lie detector, disguised as a mint box with a hidden button to force a truth or lie. Equipped with indicator light and sounds. Neon-colored wires with finger clips. (“Project MC2”)

Similar sorts of lie detection approaches (though more sophisticated) are currently being used in US military operations. For example, the US Army’s Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening Systems (PCASS) are handheld polygraphs designed for use in battle.

Voice stress analysis systems for lie detection have been used for decades in business as well as medical and crime contexts. As described by Price, the US toy maker Hasbro distributes The Lie Detector Game, which “uses voice analysis to determine whether someone is lying”. In the box you’ll get a lie detector device and 64 cards with questions to answer as part of the gameplay … . If you tell the truth, or the device at least thinks you did, then you score a point. Lying loses you a point” (1). An assortment of smartphone apps with voice-stress analysis capabilities designed for lie detection are also widely available along with suggestions for their use in games (McQuarrie), providing yet another way for children to explore truth and deception in technologically-framed contexts.

Lie detection devices for entertainment generally construe at least one of the participants in the toy’s or game’s operations as a “subject”. The Shocking Liar game openly entices users to construct the human game players as “victims”:

The SHOCKING LIAR [sic] is a table top device that you strap your victim's hand to, delivering a small electric shock when it thinks a lie is being told… The lie detector evaluates the data and stores the information after each question giving an accumulation of data on the person being questioned. This means the more questions that you ask, the more information the lie detector has to evaluate... Place your hand onto the hand plate of the SHOCKING LIAR. If you tell the truth, you can move away from it safely and if you tell a direct lie or have given an unacceptable amount of half-truths, you will receive an electric shock.

Children who use Shocking Liar are indeed led to assume that they can catch themselves or friends in dishonesty, but research justification for the Shocking Liar’s results is not available. The societal messages imparted by the toys to children (such as “this toy can determine whether you are lying”) make their impacts especially consequential. These toys and games extract from the subjects’ data various aspects of which the subjects may not have conscious control or even awareness. For instance, the pitch of the subject’s voice can be mined and subsequently given voice stress analysis, as in the previously described Hasbro game. From this “shadow” or autonomic input is developed an interpretation (however problematic) of the subjects’ mental state. The results of the analysis may eventually be processed consciously by subjects, either as polygraph readings or electrical shocks (as in Shocking Liar). The autonomic input involved is often known as “leakage” or “tells” (Ekman).

Game playing with robots presents new lie detection venues. Children often react differently in robot-mediated interactions to truth and deception issues than they do with human beings (Pearson). Since the opportunities for child-robot interaction are increasing with the advent of companion robots, new contexts for lie detection games are emerging. Robots that present verbal feedback to children based on the child’s preferences over time, or that strategically withhold information, are being developed and marketed. Research on children’s responses to robots may provide clues as to how to make cognitive engineering and mental privacy invasions more acceptable. This raises serious concerns about children’s perceptions of the standings of robots as moral guides as well as gaming companions.

For younger children who are just acquiring the notion of lying, the toys and games could extend the kinds of socialisation provided by their parents and guardians. As lie detection initiatives are taking on wide roles in everyday human interaction (such as educational cheating and employee credibility assessment), the integration of the approaches into children’s activities may serve to normalise the processes involved. Older children who already have some sense of what lying constitutes may find in the lie detection toys and games some insights as to how to become more effective as liars. Some parents may use these lie-detection toys in misguided attempts to determine whether their children are lying to them about something. Many toys and games are explicit in their lie detection and surveillance themes, with specific narratives relating to the societal roles of detectives and spies. Children become complicit in the societal functions of lie detection, rather than simply being subjects or audiences to them.

Children’s toys and games are all about experimentation, and these lie detection artifacts are no different (Oravec 2000). Children are enabled through interactions with the toys and games to experiment with lying behavior and possibly explore certain aspects of their own mental lives as well as those of others. Children can learn how to modulate some of the external physiological signals that are often associated with lying, much in the way that individuals can alter various physiological responses with assistance of biofeedback technologies. Such efforts may be empowering in some senses but also increase the potential for confusion about truthfulness and lying. Use of the toys and games may support the emergence of psychopathic tendencies in which children exhibit antisocial and egocentric behavior along with a failure to learn about the consequences of their actions, in this case lying (Hermann). This situation is comparable to that of organisations that advertise training for how to “beat” or “outsmart” polygraphs, efforts that have often confounded law enforcement and intelligence agencies (Rosky).

Playing with the Truth: Children and Honesty

The constructions of lie detection events that are fostered in these toys and games generally simplify and mechanise truth-lie differences, and often present them in an unquestioning manner. Children are not encouraged to wonder whether the devices are indeed functioning as stated in the instructions and advertising materials. Failure to inform children about the toys’ intents and to request their consent about lie detection could also challenge some of them to attempt to subvert the toys’ mechanisms. However, many lie detection toys and games provide the opportunity for historically grounded lessons for children about the detection and surveillance strategies of other eras, if introduced in a critical and context-sensitive manner.

The assumption that effective lie detection is possible and mental privacy is thus limited is reinforced by the framings of many of these toys and games (Oravec “Emergence”). Lying is indeed a reflection of “Theory of Mind” which enables us to imagine the minds of others, and children are given an arena for exploration on this theme. However, children also learn that their mental worlds and streams of consciousness are readily accessible by others with the use of certain technologies. Scientific justification for the use of polygraphs through the past decades has yielded problematic results, although polygraphs and many other lie detection technologies have still retained social acceptability apparently related to their cultural appeal (Paul, Fischer, and Voigt). Many voice stress apps are also not reliable according to recent research (Tyrsina). The normalisation of current and projected systems for lie detection and mental privacy incursions presents unsettling prospects for children’s development, and the designers and disseminators of toys and games need to consider these dimensions. Using technologically enhanced games, toys, or robots to detect “lies” rather than engaging more directly with other humans in a game context may have unfortunate overall outcomes. For example, the ability to practice various schemes to evade detection while lying may be an attractive aspect of these toys and games to some individuals. The kinds of input often linked with lying behaviors (or “leakage”) can include physiological changes in voice qualities that are generally not directly controllable by the speaker without specific practice; the games and toys provide such practice venues. Individuals who are able to disconnect from their autonomic expressions and lie without physical or acoustic signs can exacerbate personality issues and social pathologies. Some may become psychopaths, who lie to get their way and tend not to feel remorseful, with the games and toys potentially exacerbating genetic tendencies; others may become pathological liars, who lie regardless of whether there is specific benefit to them in doing so (Vrij).

Some of these toy-related spying and detective activities can unfortunately be at the expense of others’ wellbeing, whatever their impacts on the children directly involved as players. For example, some forms of lie detection technologies incorporate the remote collection of data without notification of participants, as in the voice-analysis systems just described. Children’s curiosity about others’ thoughts and mental lives may be at the root of such initiatives, though children can also utilise them for bullying and other forms of aggressive behavior. Some research shows that early lie telling by children is often linked with self-defense as they attempt to save face, but other research couples it with anti-social action and behavioral problems (Lavoie). However, adults have been shown to have some considerable influence on children in their lie-telling conduct (Dykstra, Willoughby, and Evans), so there is hope that parents, guardians, teachers, and concerned community members can have some positive influence.

Reflections and Conclusions: The “New Pinocchio”?

Toys and games can indeed project comforting and nurturing imageries for children. However, they can also challenge individuals to think differently about themselves and others, and even present dystopian scenarios. For toy and game developers to promote lie detection technologies can be problematic because of the associations of lying with antisocial activity and behavioral problems as well as moral concerns. The characters that children play in roles of spies and lie detector administrators supply them with powerful narratives and impact on their mental concepts. The significance of truth-telling in children’s lives is expanding as societal attention to credibility issues increases. For example, children are often called on to present evidence during divorce proceedings and abuse-related cases, so there is a significant body of research about children’s verbal truth and deception patterns (Talwar, Lavoie, and Crossman). The data collected by some networked lie detection toys (such as voice stress analysers) can subsequently be used by third-parties for marketing purposes or direct surveillance, raising critical questions about consent (Oravec “Emergence”).

Future entertainment modes may soon be developed with lie detection approaches comparable to the ones I discuss in this article, since many games rely on some form of mental privacy assumptions. Games often have some aspect of personal cognitive control at their roots, with the assumption that individuals can shield their own deliberations from other players at least to some extent.

Technological capabilities for lie detection can alter the kinds of strategies involved in games. For example, if players know the quality of other players’ poker hands through technological means, games would need to be restructured substantially, with speed of response or other aspects at a premium.

The current and future toy and game developments just discussed underscore the continuing need for ethical and professional vigilance on the part of researchers and developers as they choose projects to work on and technologies to bring to market. Children and young people who play with lie detection and surveillance-related artifacts are being exposed to assumptions about how their own consciousness functions and how they can best navigate in the world through truth-telling or lying. Although children once acquired insights about lying though moral fables like Pinocchio, they are now learning from corporate-developed technological toys and games.


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Author Biography

Jo Ann Oravec, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Jo Ann Oravec (MA, MS, MBA, PhD) is a full professor at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. She is also affiliated with the Holtz Center for STS at UW-Madison. She has written over eighty peer-reviewed articles on computing, ethics, public policy, disability studies, and related topics.  Her books include Good Robot, Bad Robot: Dark and Creepy Sides of Robotics, Autonomous Vehicles, and AI (Springer) and Virtual Individuals, Virtual Groups (Cambridge University Press).