Liar, liar, scans on fire: fMRI could have predicted Madoff would break promises

liar-fmri-could-have-predicted-madoff-would-break-promisesJust one year ago, on Dec. 11, 2008, FBI agents went to Bernard Madoff's house to arrest one of the most notorious white-collar criminals in history, a man who has pulled off the largest Ponzi scheme ever, swindling his clients out of an estimated at $19.4 billion. Well, what if those clients could have discovered ahead of time -- through a simple brain scan -- that Madoff wouldn't keep his promises?

Here's where a science fiction concept becomes science fact. New-found patterns in brain activity can actually reveal whether someone intends to keep his (or her) word, scientists say. While the researchers thought this technology would be useful to determine the true intentions of criminals who are up for early release on parole, I can think of other uses -- mainly on Wall Street.

Dr. Thomas Baumgartner of the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to catch promise-breakers in the act, New Scientist reports.

To test it, they used a game where an investor was given real money with the choice of investing in a trustee. While investors could make five times as much money by using the trustee, they also ran the risk that the trustee might not share the winnings, but keep the money.

To secure the investment, almost all the trustees promised to always share their winnings, but not everybody kept the promise -- some hoarded all the money to themselves. The fMRI data revealed that certain brain areas became more active not only when trustees were actively breaking a promise, but also when they intended to break the promise. These regions – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala – are known to be involved in emotion.

This "promise" test is a little different than catching someone in a flat-out lie, Baumgartner says, because while the promise breakers are aware they are planning on doing something wrong, they haven't actually done it yet, and might still do the right thing.

So the scan isn't foolproof. First, those originally intending to keep their promises might change their minds and break them later after all. Second, there are always those pathological liars who don't feel any emotional conflicts even when they're lying, cheating and making false promises.

But while scientists debate the moral implications of brain scanning criminals up for parole, I can envision a future in which investors take bankers, trustees, company executives and money managers to the local fMRI machine to check on their intentions. And perhaps, if society can resolve all the ethical issues around the technology, maybe in a few decades it can be used to determine whether Madoff should be allowed early parole on his 150 year sentence.

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