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Does Truth Serum Really Exist?

Diana Bocco
Updated May 16, 2024
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Truth serum is a drug used to obtain information during an investigation from subjects who are unwilling to answer or somehow unable to remember the facts first-hand. There are several drugs that can be used in this way, including sodium pentothal, sodium thiopental (an anesthetic), grain alcohol (ethanol), scopolamine (a highly toxic depressant), and barbiturates. The same drugs have many other applications: they are used in psychiatry to treat phobias, as a general anesthesia, and even to produce medically-induced comas.

The truth serum has often been portrayed in fiction and films as a magical solution. Even the character Barty Crouch in the "Harry Potter" books is subjected to a magical version and ends up confessing to a list of offenses. Many films, especially those that came out a couple of decades ago, when the use of such drugs was at its peak of popularity, portrayed the serum as 100% effective. TV series 24, docudrama Shell Shock, and many others have used it as a plot device.

In real life, however, the use of these drugs as a truth serum is highly controversial. While they typically do make a person more likely to tell the truth, they also make him more likely to get confused about what he is saying. As the person becomes more and more talkative, the lines between fact and fantasy begin to blur. Experts believe that up to 50% of what a person says while under the influence of such drugs is either an embellished version of the truth or a complete invention. It produces an effect similar to alcohol intoxication, lowering inhibitions, and making people chattier and more prone to answering questions.

Military intelligence in both the US and Russia are testing other drugs as a potential replacement for the ones currently in use. Both countries still use these medications in controversial cases where other methods have failed to provide an answer, including high-profile military cases and circumstances involving national security matters.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Diana Bocco
By Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various businesses. With a data-focused approach and a talent for sharing engaging stories, Diana’s written work gets noticed and drives results.
Discussion Comments
By anon929236 — On Jan 31, 2014

Having worked in OR recovery, I can attest to just how much people will say in a twilight sleep. Their deepest, darkest, secrets come flying out of their mouths without hesitation. This would be extremely useful in cases of murder, rape, or other violent crimes to know what really happened. It could prevent innocent people from being jailed and ensure the guilty feel the full wrath of Justice.

By anon290521 — On Sep 10, 2012

Sorry, but "human rights" don't apply to certain criminals. War criminals, serial killers or terrorists should be treated according to their crimes. I'm not saying torture them --although some deserve it-- but if they are hiding information that's putting more lives at risk, then using the truth serum (or whatever other method is necessary to obtain information) is not a violation of their rights.

By anon289567 — On Sep 04, 2012

@bfree: In some situations, particularly those involving heinous war crimes against an entire nation, one is not entitled to "human rights", especially when it has been proven that the individual was directly involved in such a crime. It's definitely a more considerate method than the alternative, torture.

By anon237668 — On Dec 30, 2011

@bfree: Sometimes it's more at stake than the suspect who doesn't want to cooperate.

By Markus — On May 29, 2011

@MsClean – Your answer is mostly correct but people misunderstand the point in using drugs in the interrogation process. The use of the drug gives the interrogator a competitive advantage over the suspect.

Disorienting the mind makes it easier to conjole information out of them that could be useful to the case later on.

They may not tell you all their secrets, but when you ask the right questions while they’re in a drunken state, they’ll loosen up enough to share some very important information.

Personal weaknesses are usually what the interrogator is looking for, which can be used to extract even more vital information.

By bfree — On May 26, 2011

Truth serum interrogation should be banned. If the suspect doesn’t want to cooperate, sober-minded, then throw them in jail. I really feel that truth serum is an invasion of human rights.

By MsClean — On May 24, 2011

@ellafarris - Alcohol and Sodium Pentathol are pretty effective at getting to the truth. It takes a trained pharmacist to administer the dosage and a highly skilled psychiatrist to ask precisely the right questions.

The purpose of the drug is to reduce the suspect’s inhibitions but only enough so that they are still coherent. The interrogator has enough skill and knowledge to know how to sift through all the lies.

It doesn’t have any long-term mental or physical effect so I say just let them do their job.

By ellafarris — On May 23, 2011

It seems to me that using drug or alcohol truth serums would not only alter the mind, but has the potential to distort the truth altogether.

How are they really sure they’re getting the truth? I mean the answers are just a judgment call, aren't they, and the interrogator can accept whatever he/she wants to believe as the truth.

I’m not trying to discredit anyone I just don’t think it’s an effective form of interrogation.

Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various...
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