William Marston and the Lie Detector

William Marston and the Lie Detector

In addition to being the creator of DISC, William Marston is also credited as being the inventor of the modern lie detector test. Here’s how it happened:

During Marston’s work in the Harvard Psychology Lab as a graduate student in 1915, he performed a great deal of experiments on human subjects in an effort to measure the connection between emotion and behavior. (This is the same research that would ultimately lead to his DISC theories and the publication of his famed 1928 book Emotions of Normal People.) In his early experiments, Marston became convinced that emotion could best be measured by looking at a subject’s blood pressure. He first got the idea from his wife, noticing that her blood pressure would climb dramatically when she was angry or excited—An interesting window into their marriage, to be sure!

Once Marston realized that he could track emotional responses through blood pressure, he created the systolic blood pressure test.

The systolic blood pressure test was a simple way to determine if a subject was experiencing an emotional response to outside stimulus. It was a great help to Marston’s research, giving him clinical measurements on which to base his theories. Eventually, though, it occurred to Marston that there might be other practical uses for this test. If the systolic blood pressure test could provide empirical scientific evidence of the body’s emotional responses, then perhaps it could measure the presence of emotion when a subject was unable or unwilling to do so directly? This gave Marston an idea: to offer his services during the questioning of criminal suspects using the systolic blood pressure test. If the suspect was asked a question and displayed a spike in blood pressure, it could be seen as an indication of the emotional reaction provoked by a lie.

Marston’s invention was a hit in law enforcement circles. He traveled the country, offering his testing services in courtrooms and interrogation rooms across the country. In total he and his assistants tested over 100 criminal cases in the Boston criminal court alone. Marston became a minor celebrity, and it was through the attention he gained in the media during this period of time that his invention became popularly known as the “lie detector test.”

But this is only the beginning of the story. Marston’s lie detector and theories of DISC are clearly connected—Both are methods of studying the relationship between emotion and human behavior. But how did Marston’s work studying human emotions eventually land him in Hollywood? Check back next week to find out!

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