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Truth Serum and Truthiness

Updated on January 8, 2018
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Stephen Bush is a consulting and career training expert. He is the CEO and Founder of AEX Commercial Financing Group.

Truth Serum and Truthiness
Truth Serum and Truthiness

Can You Spot the Fakes?

When trying to evaluate if something is true or not, we probably all hope for a practical version of truth serum for administering to the source of new information. The Internet has certainly made it easier to quickly disseminate lies and fake stories to thousands of people. At the same time, the Internet also serves as a helpful source of data about urban legends so that fakes can be uncovered more easily.

The original concept of an urban legend was probably a modern form of folklore or legend in which some fictional accounting was elevated to the level of truth by being shared repeatedly via email. As social media such as Twitter and Facebook grew more popular, these became the accepted choice for sharing stories whether they were true or not. In recent years, some of the biggest hoaxes have originated from business and political sources rather than isolated individuals.

Thanks to Stephen Colbert and his coining of "truthiness," we have a new entry in the truth sweepstakes. Regardless of what we call fake stories, how are we supposed to spot the fakes in this age of more advanced hoaxes?

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

— Oscar Wilde

Truthiness: Stephen Colbert Invents His Own Truth

When The Colbert Report debuted in 2005, Stephen Colbert forever changed the truth landscape with his coining of "truthiness." In short order, Merriam-Webster added the word to its dictionary:

"Truth that comes from the gut, not books" (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," October 2005)

The initial focus of explanations involving "truthiness" on The Colbert Report was the invasion of Iraq orchestrated by George W. Bush in 2003. Colbert eventually also devoted a great deal of "truthiness" coverage to Wikipedia because of how the truth could be "shaped" at this Internet site based on contributions from the public. By focusing so much of his comedy and parody on truth in this fashion, Stephen Colbert provided a superb "art imitates life" confirmation of what some of us suspected:

"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them." (Galileo)

How Important Is Truth?

Theories About Truth

The research and discussion about "truth" is extensive and apparently never-ending. There are multiple theories about truth. For example, the correspondence theory was subscribed to by Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. This view of truth is based on the actual state of affairs. But as in most opinion polls, there is wide disagreement as to which theory about truth is "best." One survey indicated about 45 percent of respondents thought the correspondence theory was superior, and of course this means that 55 percent had a conflicting opinion. There does seem to be a better consensus that the road to truth is a difficult one:

"There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: not going all the way, and not starting." (Buddha)

"Falsehood is easy, truth is so difficult." (George Elliot)

Howard Gardner Talks About Truth

Urban legends are usually classified as a subset of legends and folklore. "Folklore is informal expressive culture experienced in small groups." (Excerpt from the following video, "What Is Folklore?")

What is folklore? Here is an excellent video explanation.

A Short History of Truth Serum - The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth?

Based on a variety of conflicting reports and evidence about "truth serum," it meets many of the normal requirements of an urban legend story. In particular, truth serum is often talked about routinely as something that will help investigators "get the real truth" while at the same time truth serum has never been widely accepted by most parties. Perhaps its only ongoing use is in fictional books, television and movies. Here is a short history of what we do know about truth serum (as originally reported in the Scientific American and other sources):

  1. Originally developed by Dr. Robert House in the early 20th Century (estimated period 1910-1920). I'm not sure why the time period is so vague in most accounts, but perhaps that just adds to the legend and folklore quality of truth serum. The use of "truth serum" has almost always involved psychoactive drugs, and the initial studies were called narcoanalysis. Dr. House apparently used scopolamine.
  2. Truth serum was supposedly used by police during the 1930s — but with very little documentation as to results.
  3. During World War Two, there were some attempts to use truth serum variations to help treat wounded soldiers. But there was apparently no documented use for getting captured prisoners to talk. (Of course, we can add a conspiracy theory or two by suggesting that the "real use of truth serum" is never going to be talked about publicly because that's how the CIA and other espionage groups operate. Is it possible that they even created urban legends to be the perfect cover story?)
  4. Contemporary references to truth serum generally involve variations of sodium amytal and sodium pentothal.
  5. The theory behind truth serum has been more or less consistent from the beginning: those receiving truth serum are unable to censor themselves and therefore cannot stop themselves from being truthful. What is now known that was not well-understood in the beginning is that subjects are routinely prone to extreme suggestibility. The "truth" that they reveal is heavily dependent on what their questioners suggest by what they say and ask. For the time being, most democracies ban the use of "truth serum" and it does not appear that any U.S. court has ever accepted testimony received under the influence of "truth serum."

The Truth Is Out There
The Truth Is Out There

Truth in Advertising?

I have always found one of the best sources for strategic information about persuasion, communication and truth to be "inside advertising" books. Since advertising represents one of the ongoing areas for distortions of facts, don't you want to know what they are telling their people to do in order to get the fakes into our living rooms?

Reverse mortgages provide a stellar example. Here is how Carole Fleck (AARP Bulletin: Are Reverse Mortgages Helpful or Hazardous?) describes the relationship between advertising and reverse mortgage problems:

"In one slick TV spot after another, reverse mortgages are touted as an easy means to a carefree lifestyle. Actor Robert Wagner, Henry "the Fonz" Winkler and even former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson assure older homeowners that they can "live a better retirement" with a reverse mortgage. But what the ads don't show is the heartbreak that these complex loans — which allow homeowners to convert part of the equity in their homes into cash — have brought to a number of homeowners."

Half True or Half False?
Half True or Half False?

A Poll - What Is Your Opinion?

During the past 25 years or so, has it become easier or more difficult to distinguish the truth from lies?

See results

You can't handle the truth.

— Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men"

A Famous Movie Speech about Truth

Sometimes the truth is withheld under the belief that it would harm somebody. In "A Few Good Men," that is exactly what the character played by Jack Nicholson (Colonel Nathan Jessep) claims to be doing. As he also says in the video dialogue shown above, "You have the luxury of not knowing what I know."

Can Truth Be Self-Evident?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident...."

(excerpt from the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776)

Timeless Perspectives about Truth and Lies

  1. "Three things cannot long be hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth."


  2. "Anyone who doesn't take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either."

    (Albert Einstein)

  3. "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."

    (Winston Churchill)

The Truth According to Gandhi

"Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth."

Half True and Half Truth: The Predecessor of Truthiness?

For those that think truth can be graded on a curve, half truth and truthiness might provide some comfort and refuge. Each individual probably has their own standard for how true something needs to be in order for them to represent it as the truth.

I often wonder what this standard is for certain specific individuals that we hear speak publicly. What percentage of what we hear from the following do you suppose is true? I often wonder if it is even half.



Oil and gas executives?


Or have we stopped caring about public lies?

Simon Blackburn Talks About Truth

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't.

— Mark Twain

© 2012 Stephen Bush

And now, your thoughts on the subject...

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    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      It is better to tell the truth, that is for sure. But, I have learned to keep my mouth shut if the truth is going to hurt someone, and they really do not need to know.

    • Linda BookLady profile image

      Linda Jo Martin 5 years ago from Post Falls, Idaho, USA

      Interesting lens! I didn't know that the existence of truth serum is questionable. Forcing people to tell the truth is an ongoing issue in our civilization. I would love to live in a place where truth telling isn't an issue because nobody has a reason to lie, but that is not happening any time soon.

    • Melissa Miotke profile image

      Melissa Miotke 5 years ago from Arizona

      I'm just shocked how lately it's acceptable in the media and in politics to circulate outright lies and everyone seems okay with it. Blessed

    • ComfortsOfHome profile image

      ComfortsOfHome 5 years ago

      This was extremely interesting. I think one reason why it's becoming (IMO) more difficult to tell what's true is because we're much more accepting of "little white lies" than previous generations were. For example, my mother's generation was much more likely to "lie by ommission" if a departure from truth-telling was required, as in to spare someone's feelings, where my own generation will pay a mild compliment ("Yes, I like your singing") rather than somehow find a way to be both truthful and kind. Perhaps it's laziness, and truth takes more mental effort?