Sophie van der Zee Sophie van der Zee Rafaël Philippen

Scientist of lying

In Mind
Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Wednesday, 16 November 2016 12:59

Fraud, scamming, false witnesses. Sophie van der Zee, who does cutting-edge research on dishonest behaviour and automatic lie detection, has been affiliated with several UK universities as well as the TNO Knowledge Institute. But it was Maastricht University’s Master in Psychology and Law that laid the foundation for her multifaceted career. “My love of academia was born here.”


After her bachelor’s in Social Psychology, Van der Zee wasn’t sure want to do next – until she followed the course Pyschology in the Courtroom taught by the renowned Dutch legal psychologist Willem Albert Wagenaar. “I was sold immediately. After the very first lecture I approached Professor Wagenaar and said to him: I want to be just like you. How do I go about it?” She devoured his books on miscarriages of justice and the distortion of memory, and her mind was made up: legal psychology was for her.

She describes the move to Maastricht as logical. UM was the only university in the country to offer a master’s degree in Psychology and Law. Her hero Wagenaar played a crucial part in this decision too: “I followed his advice literally – he said I should go to Harald Merckelbach in Maastricht.” It was one of the best decisions she ever made. “Suddenly I was surrounded by all these students who idolised Wagenaar as well. All my interests converged in the programme, and I got acquainted with Problem-Based Learning. It was fantastic, collaborating with tutors and fellow students to discover something new.”

Automatic lie detection
Van der Zee wanted to do a PhD in forensic psychology, but struggled to find funding in the Netherlands. Thanks to glowing references from “the biggest names in legal psychology” – Hans Crombag, Wagenaar and Merckelbach – she managed to find a place at Lancaster University in England. There she combined psychology with information science, focusing on automatic lie detection by means of behavioural cues. “I was interested in whether, by automating data analysis of police interrogations, you could establish more objectively whether someone was lying.” In collaboration with researchers from the University of Twente, she developed a method for automatically measuring human behaviour.

After her PhD she was, to her own surprise, invited to continue her research at the prestigious King's College in Cambridge. There she designed and developed an advanced lie detector that captured the imagination of the media. It takes the form of a full-body motion capture suit, of the sort used in Hollywood films for the animation of characters such as Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Whereas traditional detectors measure stress – which affects innocent people too – her detector measures the subtle body movements associated with lying.

Harry Potter backdrop
Van der Zee spent a total of five years in England. Her stay at King's College in particular, with its centuries-old traditions, was unforgettable. “There I was, just a Dutch girl in a gown eating dinner across from a Nobel Prize winner against this Harry Potter backdrop.” In a conversation with Jet Bussemakers, the Minister of Education, she described the differences between the two education systems. “The nice thing about the Netherlands is that you can always study at a reasonably good university. In England the differences from one institution to the next are enormous, and it makes sense to keep track of the rankings. Here, on the other hand, excellence is more highly valued and incentivised.”

She returned to the Netherlands for personal reasons and took a job as a cybercrime researcher at TNO. “This fit well with my interdisciplinary background and my passion for practical research.” With a focus on online fraud, one of her tasks was to evaluate a new cross-border communication system. But academia kept calling, drawing her back in. Van der Zee was recently appointed as a lecturer in Social Psychology and Work and Organisational Psychology at VU University Amsterdam. “Back to my roots,” she laughs. “I realised I needed more depth, and an academic career suits me better.”

Academic fraud
And so Van der Zee is adding even more strings to her bow. The common theme in all this is her research on various practices of deception and deceit. Why do people cheat and lie? How can dishonest behaviour be deterred? With research on deception now fragmented across many different disciplines, in 2015 she organised the interdisciplinary conference ‘Decepticon’. It is a vast topic, occupied with exciting research questions: Can you tell from someone’s eye movements whether they’re lying? Do we become more dishonest after being treated unfairly?

And of course: why do people commit academic fraud? The controversy surrounding Diederik Stapel – himself a social psychologist – was the talk of the town in England too. While Van der Zee makes no excuses for fraudsters, she does understand the motivation. “The academic world is competitive. You only get grants if you publish a lot, and that doesn’t happen with replication research or negative results. Young academics have no room to fail, which means the pressure to perform can be enormous. In England it’s been known to drive academics to suicide.”

Via this detour, we return to the year she spent in Maastricht. “I have absolutely no doubt that the master’s in Psychology and Law laid the groundwork for my career. It gave me a solid foundation and made me even more enthusiastic about the field. My love of academia was born here.”

Sophie van der Zee (1987) followed the Master in Psychology and Law at Maastricht University. After her PhD at Lancaster University, she continued her research on lie detection at King's College Cambridge and the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. Until recently a cybercrime researcher at TNO, she is now a lecturer in Social Psychology and Work and Organisational Psychology at VU University Amsterdam.

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