Throughout history, societies advanced in various methods of deception detection. In the earliest of times, it seems torture was the ideal method for identifying truthfulness. Confessions provided on the rack, by fire, water submersion, or even blood ritual, placated those seeking the truth during our early human history. The first noted scientific approach for lie detection arrived in 1885 when Cesare Lombroso invented a device that measured changes in blood pressure in individuals being questioned about truthfulness. In 1917, William M. Marstin, J.D., Ph.D. a student at Harvard University, alleged the discovery of a specific lie response that launched the means of distinguishing deception from truthfulness. This discovery birthed the creation of what we now know today as the polygraph test after considerable innovations and a patent by a police officer in California named Leonarde Keeler during the 1920s.
Over time, the modern polygraph was refined, and several attempts were made to enhance its reliability. Current polygraph machines record and measure several physiological responses, such as skin conductivity, pulse, perspiration, and blood pressure. Since its inception, the polygraph test has remained shrouded in controversy. Debates in U.S. Congress, courtrooms, and many scientific forums all focus on two key components: ethical issues and validity.
In his book about the polygraph test, A Tremor in the Blood Uses and Abuses of the Lie Detector, Dr. David Lykken states, “We have enough evidence to say that an innocent person has nearly a 50% chance of failing a lie detector test. Odds that are much worse than in Russian Roulette” (xvi). Estimates of the validity of polygraph testing range from 90-95% by proponents in the non-scientific community and as low as 10% in the realm of scientists and psychologists. Consequently, in U.S. v. Scheffer, #96-1133, (1998), the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable.” In 2005, in U.S. v. Henderson, #04-11545, 409 F 3d 1293 (11th Cir. 2005), the court found that “Polygraphy did not enjoy general acceptance from the science community.” Several journals, books, articles, and seminars examine both sides of this dispute. This paper will share some of the research surrounding the controversy vis-à-vis the validity, reliability, and moral issues surrounding the modern polygraph test.
How it Works:
The fact of the polygraph test is that it does not measure lying. The polygraph does measure physiological changes, including changes in galvanic skin response, respiration, and cardiovascular activity. The philosophy on polygraph results is that changes in its measures result from emotional stimulation. There are four basic physical components with various trial apparatus devices throughout history. 1) The pneumograph comprises two 10-inch convulated tubes fastened around the subject’s chest and abdomen. During a test, as the circumference of the subject’s chest and abdomen increases with each inspiration of air, the pneumograph tubes stretch: as the subject exhales, the contraction moves. Its function is to record the subject’s breathing and respiration changes.
2) The galvanograph, which consists of electrodes attached to the index finger and the ring finger of the left hand or to the palmar and dorsal surface of the left hand, the left hand is suitable because of the fact that the blood pressure cuff attachment is on the right arm. Its function is to record the subject’s skin resistance to a very imperceptible amount of electricity.
3) The cardiosphygmograph consists of a blood pressure cuff and rubber pump and the sphygmomanometer, an instrument used for measuring blood pressure, specifically arterial blood pressure. The blood pressure cuff is fastened around the subject’s right arm in such a way as to ensure that the rubber portion of the cuff is placed over the brachial artery for a more satisfactory recording. When the rubber cuff is inflated, the alternating distension and contraction of the tissue of the subject’s arm due to the changes in blood pressure (and probably blood volume as well) cause an increase in pressure within the cuff and in the associated below.
4) The kymograph is the motor that drives or pulls the chart paper under the recording pen at the rate of 6 or 12 inches per minute. Its function is to record the blood pressure/pulse, respiration, and galvanic skin resistance and are recorded simultaneously and continuously on the surface of moving graph paper driven by the kymograph. (Furedy, J.J. and R.J. Heslegrave 79).
The problem in the measurements and results occurs because physiological activity changes may result from factors other than deception. These variations may occur due to a subject’s anxiety, or a truthful subject may become very nervous and fearful when asked personal or crime-related questions and thus be falsely tested as deceitful; contrary to this, a subject who is lying may be adept at controlling his/her/their emotions and/or physiological responses and may thus be erroneously certified as truthful. (These issues will be discussed further later).
Therefore, according to research by Leonard Saxe P.h.D in SOCIETY Journal, the underlying premise of polygraph tests is that physiological arousals following attempts at deception is in some respects a preposterous assumption” (39-41). Additionally, as stated by the 1999 publication by the Federation of American Scientists, “No specific polygraphic or behavioral response has been directly linked to the act of deception, and there are too many subjective factors involved in the administration and interpretation of polygraph tests to be able to predict and control their effectiveness and limitations” (www.fas.org).
CQT & R/I:
The R/I (relevant/irrelevant) method was the first standardized method of polygraph questioning. It was initially developed by Marston (1917). Although no longer used in specific incident examinations, a variant of the technique is the basis for most screening tests, such as a pre-employment polygraph. In a traditional R/I examination, relevant and irrelevant questions are interspersed. Deceptive subjects are assumed to react significantly more to relevant questions than to irrelevant ones. An underlying assumption is that non-deceptive subjects will respond equivalently to all questions because they do not fear questions about the relevant issue any more than irrelevant questions.
According to research journal publications by Lykken, Podlesny and Raskin, there are a number of well-recognized issues with the R/I technique. The most significant problem is that because the intent of the questions is transparent, non-deceptive as well as deceptive subjects are likely to be more aroused to relevant than irrelevant questions. (121) Additionally, any drug or mental state that either heightens or depresses physiological reactions may yield false or inconclusive readings. Although the R/I method is most commonly utilized for pre-screening polygraphs for employment, “The R/I method is considered even less accurate than the CQT, which highlights the shadowy, under-addressed system of modern pre-employment polygraph screening in America” (Rutbeck-Goldman 729).
CQT (control question test) method is the most common technique used in investigations with a specific issue. This technique was developed by John Reid (1947). This questioning format during the polygraph uses a series of questions that introduces irrelevant, sacrifice relevant, outside issue, lie control, etc. The first question is the familiar irrelevant type. Question two is relevant in substance but not used in scoring the charts; this is the sacrifice-relevant question. Question three is described as an outside issue question and is designed for the situation in which the subject might be afraid that the interrogation will stray into an area they are concerned about. If the subject seems disturbed by this question, testing will be postponed until they can be convinced that the only questions asked will be those previously reviewed with them. (Lykken 117-120). The chart below is an example of a control question test administered by D. Raskin to a defendant accused of homicide by stabbing.
1. Were you born in Hong Kong? (Yes) (Irrelevant)
2. Regarding the stabbing of Ken Chiu, do you intend to answer truthfully every question about that? (Yes) (Sacrifice Relevant)
3. Do you understand that I will onlyask questions we have discussed? (Yes) (Outside Issue)
4. During the first 18 years of your life, did you ever hurt someone? (No) (Lie Control)
5. Did you cut someone with a knife on Dumfries Street on January 23, 1976? (No) (Relevant)
6. Before 1974, did you ever try to seriously hurt someone? (No) (Lie Control)
7. Did you stab Ken Chiu on January 23, 1976? (No) (Relevant)
8. Is your first name Williams? (Yes) (Irrelevant)
9. Before age 19, did you ever lie to get out of trouble? (No) (Lie Control)
10. Did you actually see Ken Chiu get stabbed? (No) (Relevant)
In a study conducted by Patrick and Iacono, 45% of innocent test subjects of the CQT method were wrongly classified as deceptive. During conclusion of the study, Iacono stated, “We’re talking about using a procedure that has a very weak scientific foundation and making it worse I already don’t have much confidence in how government agencies conduct these tests in lieu of scientists or trained psychologists. Now, they might as well be flipping a coin” (89). The control question test, widely regarded among polygraphers as their most refined technique, is the only lie detection method to have been seriously studied. The problem is that these studies were determined in many ways as defective or irrelevant; none are definitive. Because of the contamination resulting from reliance on polygraph-induced confessions as criteria of ground truth, the CQT’s accuracy is inexact. Especially in detecting guilty suspects is overestimated by these studies to an unknown extent. Naïve subjects can learn to beat the CQT with less than an hour’s instruction, using covert countermeasures that even experienced polygraphers cannot detect. (Lykken 135-136)
Pre-Employment Polygraph Screening:
Of the various context the polygraph is administered, the pre-employment polygraph test is perhaps the most controversial use of this device. Its proponents contend that it is “An inexpensive method of verifying employee truthfulness, and its opponents claim that human dignity and individual rights are lost in this quest” (www.nap.edu). The lack of field research led the National Resource Council (NRC), which compiled a comprehensive report on polygraph technology in 2003, to conclude that agencies seeking to use polygraph testing for employee security screening face “An unacceptable choice” and between “too many loyal employees falsely judged deceptive and too many major security threats left undetected” (https://www.nationalacademies.org/). Polygraphs continued use in pre-employment screening raises questions in the scientific community, which question the lack of their validity and reliability. The U.S. Congress was well aware of this lack of scientific consensus when it passed the Employee Polygraph Protection Act in 1988, but it still exempted itself from its obligations. While the reasons for Congress’s exemption seem to constitute a deferential approach to national security jurisdiction, this exemption undermines the Act’s effectiveness. It casts doubt on the government’s patchwork policy regime in place regarding the polygraph’s continued use.
It is primarily because of the polygraph’s unreliability that its use in employment has been so controversial. Even before the passage of the EPPA in 1998, the polygraph’s use in pre-employment screening had faced harsh criticism. Before congressional debate, several states had already passed their statutes banning its use in employment screening, and state courts often upheld challenges to these statutes. The Minnesota Supreme Court, for example, in deciding a First Amendment challenge to Minnesota’s pre-employment polygraph ban, found that the state had a number of legitimate interests for its statute.
Encouraging the maintenance of a harmonious atmosphere in employment relationships which may be disturbed by the coercion to take a polygraph or similar examination; protecting an employee’s expectation of privacy which he or she may have in questions put during these examinations are personal, private, or confidential; discouraging practices which demean or appear to demean the dignity of the individual employee in a significant way; protecting employees from adverse inferences drawn if they refuse to take these tests; and avoiding the coercive impact present in the solicitation. (State v. Century Camera, Inc. Minn. 1981)
As described above, the Minnesota Supreme Court focused on the coercive nature of the polygraph, the desire to maintain “harmonious relationships” in the employment context, and other dignitary issues suffered by employees as rationales to uphold state legislation.
Unfortunately, at this time, public employees are still not afforded the same exemptions as private employees. This is not the first or only time the government has exempted itself from a law. However, it seems strange that the government would have exempted itself in this case while concurrently promoting a policy choice based on the unreliability of the polygraph: even the stated importance of national security cannot make the polygraph more reliable. Furthermore, if another motivator of the Act was fear of misuse or overuse by private agencies, why is the government exempt from this potential misuse? These questions underlie a much-needed discussion of the dangerous implications of using polygraph examinations for pre-employment screening. First, anyone concerned about fair employment practices should raise an eyebrow at the large number, but invisible nature, of employees who are falsely identified as “deceptive” by the polygraph on an annual basis: the “false positives.” This invisible community of false positives is particularly concerning since polygraph testing tends to have an adverse effect on the most truthful, conscientious employees that one might intentionally seek for high-security positions.
Conversely, the polygraph’s effectiveness is undercut by the fact of existing “false negatives,” those who pass the polygraph despite having a criminal record or posing a security risk. “Research suggests that using the polygraph for employment purposes might lead to a sense of overconfidence on the part of the government, thereby relaxing other screening standards and detecting actual security threats. This concern about undue confidence also underlies Supreme Court decision-making concerning the role of polygraph evidence in the courtroom. For all these reasons, using the polygraph for pre-employment screening or as an ongoing condition of employment should be reconsidered” (Rutbeck-Goldman 733)
False positives are one inevitable outcome of using unreliable polygraph practice for employment screening. While there is no court-recognized right to public employment, the fact remains that there is a sizeable invisible community of people not receiving employment offers because they cannot pass this test but are not lying, regardless of how broadly we might define lying. “The FBI alone still polygraphs approximately 13,000 people a year for job screening, and as many as 40% of special agent applicants do not get the job because of their polygraph test results.
These numbers should be extremely disconcerting for anyone who cares about unfair employment practices since many people screened out are (1) innocent by definition or (2) ‘guilty’ of something – but that ‘something’ likely does not relate to his or her essential job duties” (Rutbeck-Goldman 734). As far as numbers within this false positive community are concerned, one study found that one in four applicants for law enforcement were disqualified solely based on their polygraph results. Federal agencies report a similar failure rate. According to a 1997 letter submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee by Donald Kerr, then assistant director of the FBI’s Laboratory Division, “Twenty percent of the Bureau’s job applicants who had passed an initial pre-employment screening were determined to withhold pertinent information on lie detector tests. This problem does not affect pre-employment alone but also affects screenings for continued employment. Indeed, the likelihood of receiving a deceptive test result at some point in an employee’s career increases when one is subjected to multiple polygraph examinations. The more times one is subjected to a polygraph examination, the more opportunities one has for the machine to show a deceptive result even just one fatal time” (Rutbeck-Goldman 735). There is no credible research on the important topic of pre-employment polygraph testing. No one has established whether the screening test has some, slight, or no validity.
Ethical Concerns – Bias and Other Concerns Beyond the Machine:
Regarding various differences of race on polygraph results, Lykken stated, “There are even ethnic differences. When Bedouin tribesman of the Negev desert were examined on the polygraph, they were found to be far less reactive than Israeli Jews, whether of Near Eastern or European origin” (273). For policy-making executives, in particular, the polygraph raises more than technical issues of validity and reliability. There are documented concerns about racial disparities. Using polygraph techniques to detect or avoid hiring certain persons due to implicit biases constitutes a subversion of judicial processes to “trial by polygraph.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shared an article written by Jay Stanley, stating, “Wired used records of polygraph use obtained from police departments and several lawsuits to show that not only do ‘failure rates’ for various supposed lies vary wildly from examiner to examiner, but also that Black people have been ‘failed’ disproportionately often. A polygraph only records raw data; it is up to an examiner to interpret the data and draw a conclusion about the subject’s honesty. One examiner might see a blood pressure peak as a sign of deception, another might dismiss it – and it is in those individual judgments that bias can sneak in” (www.aclu.org).
There are two types of bias: explicit and implicit, which translate to our conscious and unconscious impressions. With explicit bias, we make intentional decisions based on a pre-existing belief. Explicit bias is most easily identified as active discrimination, refusing to hire someone due to an awareness of their gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. The employment hiring and interview process rely on the judgment of the applicant and the interviewer. Tan, Teoh, and Tan found “Performance of the applicant determines the response given from the interviewer, and the interviewer’s decisions are based more on the manner of the applicant’s response than the information in the response. According to Devine et al., “Common bias during the hiring process for positions with high male employment includes gender and race bias” (44).
Unconscious biases may arise partly due to the physical demands of law enforcement and/or views on the group from which the applicant is included (race, religion, sexual orientation, etc). So, if the polygraph test is “pseudoscience hokum,” as described by the National Academy of Science, then the potential outcomes are likely influenced generally by the polygrapher. A study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine stated, “Using these tests in pre-employment screening is even more complicated because examiners make inferences about individuals’ future behavior based on information about previous deeds, which may differ widely from the offenses authorities hope to prevent. The committee concluded that polygraph testing is less accurate for employee screening than for specific incidents” (Blascovich et al. 2).
Furthermore, the most recent review and study of the polygraph test conducted by the Office of Technology Assessment stated, “The OTA study concluded that other factors, including race, gender, and intelligence could affect polygraph accuracy. Likewise, a court case in Chicago suggested that Blacks may suffer false positives more than whites. In a discrimination suit brought by the U.S. District Court, individuals seeking jobs as prison guards persuaded the court that Blacks fail pre-employment polygraph tests more often than Whites” (https://sgp.fas.org/).
In 2018, Avital Ginton, a researcher on polygraph testing, conducted a study for AV-GN in Tel Aviv, Israel. The study incorporated the effect of outside influence on polygraph scoring. Ginton and his team of researchers recruited participants through emails sent to various practicing polygraph examiners employed by the American Polygraph Association. During the research, half the polygraphers were told their case subjects were confirmed as guilty ahead of the polygraph, while the other half were told all the cases were verified as truthful. On average, polygraph scores and decisions were shifted in the direction pointed out by the biasing information. The shift was evident for both clear and ambiguous tests, but not all scorers were affected by the biasing information. It seems that this finding suggests the danger of contaminating the polygraph decisions with prior knowledge to be more severe than found in previous studies. (Ginton 9).
The study, as mentioned above, bases its theory on informationally-induced bias. There is also the potential for other types of bias by the examiner. According to a study posted by the group “Antipolygraph.org,” in a test examining more than 1,100 subjects’ polygraph results, only 23.5% of innocent black candidates were correctly identified as being non-deceptive. By contrast, 36.9% of innocent white participants were correctly identified. In the Modified General Question Test (a variant question structure), only 14.6% of black participants were correctly identified as giving non-deceptive answers, compared to 33.3% of whites. In polygraph tests administered to FBI applicants between October 2008 and June 2010, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders were also overrepresented in the failed applicants dismissed for failing the test.
The Obama-era FBI was aware of conversations about the disparate racial impact of police violence and the resulting push to increase diversity in U.S. police agencies. The FBI has long struggled with diversity: of the Bureau’s 13,455 agents, only 606 (4.5%) are African-American, and only 6.8% are Hispanic. Members of racial minorities facing the sort of psychological phenomena inherent in a polygraph examination sit for their tests with this underrepresentation as a backdrop.
The effects of this backdrop might manifest themselves through a stereotype threat expectation loop – the fear of not wanting to confirm the Bureau’s historic attitude and mistreatment of African American officers, which culminated in a 2001 class action settlement – as well as through the effects of tokenism because of the small number of agents who identify themselves as members of a minority group. For example, Professor Pamela Braboy Jackson’s study on African American leaders found that racial rarity increases “token stress,” including having to show greater competence in the job force while experiencing a severe sense of isolation and other adverse effects. Similar to certain criminal convictions, when one is denied a government job for failing the polygraph test, this is considered a “black mark” that will likely disqualify someone from federal employment for life. Based on the reality of which groups are overrepresented in the criminal justice realm generally, social science research suggests that these life-long consequences will fall disproportionately on racial minorities in the pre-employment context as well.
These concerns should urge careful consideration of the use of the polygraph in pre-employment settings. (Rutbeck-Goldman) The 2003 NRC Report about polygraph testing drew upon a 2000-2001 study, which validated Rutbeck-Goldman’s research. The NRC found heightened blood pressure rates amongst African-American participants during testing that measured their cognitive responses to difficult test items. The Report concluded, “The experimental situations in which these stigma studies have occurred bear a striking resemblance to polygraph testing situations, particularly employee screening tests” (National Research Council).
Aside from the disproportionate impact polygraph examinations likely have on minority populations; two additional civil rights concerns should inform the use of polygraphs in employment settings. First, policymakers should consider whether information about one’s past should reasonably preclude the opportunity to participate in gainful employment in the future. Secondly, the information obtained during the polygraph is often elicited in a testing environment that mirrors a custodial interrogation but lacks the same protections. Therefore, one might expect a prevalence of false confession in the pre-employment polygraph context, which is contrary to the asserted purpose of utlizing the test. “Federal judges are beginning to take note of collateral consequences as well. For example, in May 2015, federal judge John Gleeson attempted to expunge the criminal record of a woman he convicted of fraud over a decade earlier after learning the extent to which her record (discovered through a polygraph test) prevented her ability to sustain a long-term job” (Rutbeck-Goldman 742).
Aside from racial implications, there are concerns about accuracy due to physical issues. In an article by Dr. Glen Cook and Dr. Charles Mitschow, they question issues with polygraph results and the autonomic nervous system. By using vital signs as an indirect measurement of deception-induced stress, the polygraph machine may provide a false positive or a false negative result if the applicant has an inherited or acquired condition that affects the autonomic nervous system. Various diseases, from alcohol use disorder to rheumatoid arthritis, can affect the ANS.
In addition, a multitude of commonly prescribed drugs can affect ANS. Even conditions not widely recognized as having a predominant clinical impact on ANS function can demonstrate measurable physiological effects. For example, approximately 60% of patients with rheumatoid arthritis will have blunted cardiovagal baroreceptor responses and heart rate variability, and dysfunction is also a common sequela of alcoholism. Patients with diabetes mellitus often have an elevated resting heart rate and low heart rate variability due to dysregulated adrenergic activity. Individuals with ANS dysfunction that causes blunted physiological responses could have inconclusive or potentially worse false-negative polygraph results due to a lack of variation between control and target questions. Also, some over-the-counter medications have effects on autonomic functions. Sympathomimetics such as pseudoephedrine or antihistamines with anticholinergic activity like diphenhydramine can both increase heart rate and blood pressure; of the ten most prescribed medications of 2016, 5 have direct effects on the ANS or the variable measured by the polygraph machine. (Cook and Mitschow (1-5)
Higher body temperature fluctuations can occur during a menstrual cycle, perimenopause, or menopause. As progesterone levels rise, estrogen levels fall. This decrease can affect the function of the hypothalamus, the part of your brain that keeps your body temperature stable. In response to lower estrogen levels, your brain releases norepinephrine and other hormones, which can make your brain even more sensitive to small changes in body temperature. How might this affect the results of a polygraph examination? “A hot flash can cause failure on a lie detector test! The same galvanic response is positive in both. Why? Because – with every flush, a massive explosion of neurotransmitters and brain stress hormones are released. These are the same brain chemicals that are produced as we struggle to create a plausible falsehood. Both arise from a fundamental brain pathway that mediates both our physical and emotional responses to perceived threats” (Kissling 1). This galvanic skin response, in simple terms, provides for clammy skin, elevated heart rate, and excessive perspiration, thus, providing an additional concern for females undergoing a polygraph test.
ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects an individual’s cognitive and psychological function. It is characterized by difficulties in sustaining attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity, making it challenging for the affected person to manage day-to-day tasks efficiently. “Taking a polygraph test can be a challenging experience, especially for individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as their condition may affect the accuracy of the results. For instance, heightened anxiety associated with ADHD might lead to physiological responses on the polygraph that could be misinterpreted as deceptive. Similarly, individuals with ADHD may have difficulty concentrating and maintaining a consistent train of thought, making it difficult to stay focused on the questions or remain still during the examination” (Hubble 2).
Of the research available, even the most basic scientific polygraph studies available give a reason for concern that countermeasures easily degrade polygraph test accuracy. When these measures are effective, they further undermine any value of polygraph screening. All of the physiological indicators measured by the polygraph can be altered by conscious efforts through cognitive or physical means, and there is enough empirical research to justify concern that successful countermeasures are learnable. One successful study of countermeasures states that it is “possible and quite easy” to train guilty parties and prepare them for a polygraph examination.
The techniques are described as being “picked up with little effort” and can cause very strong reactions to the control questions. These techniques rely on either physical or mental manipulation. Physical countermeasures involve systems such as biting one’s tongue or a tack in the shoe and mental countermeasure means call to one’s mind an exciting or frightening event or engaging in mental activities that require effort. The study found that the countermeasures most detrimental for all psychophysiological -detection were the mental techniques because mental manipulations cannot be detected even by seasoned and educated examiners. The results concluded that the rate of mistakes by the examiners was nearly 70%. (Ben-Shakhur et al.)
In 2000, convicted spy Aldrich H. Ames sent a letter from the Allenwood federal penitentiary to Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists. While working for the CIA, Mr. Ames defeated the counterintelligence polygraph examination several times. One of these examinations, for example, did not yield any suspicious findings about large cash transactions he received after he returned from his post abroad, including but not limited to a half-million-dollar cash deposit on a new home. It was only when physical surveillance was conducted that Ames and his wife were caught. Below is a portion of the letter:
Having had considerable experience with the polygraph (well beyond that which you referred to), I read your very sensible essay in SCIENCE with great interest. I offer you a few comments on the topic for whatever interest or use they may have. Like most junk science that just won’t die (graphology, astrology, and homeopathy come to mind), because of the usefulness or profit of their practitioners enjoy, the polygraph stays with us.
Its most obvious use is as a coercive aid to interrogators, lying somewhere on the scale between the rubber truncheon and the diploma on the wall behind the interrogator’s desk. It depends upon the coerciveness of the setting – you’ll be fired, you won’t get the job, you’ll be prosecuted, you’ll go to prison – and the credulous fear the device inspires. This is why the Redmon Report ventures into the simultaneously ludicrous and sinister reality that citizens’ belief in what is untrue must be fostered and strengthened. Rarely admitted, this proposition is of general application for our national security apparatus.
Your account of the Redmon Report – I haven’t seen it – shows how another hoary slider is thrown past the public. The polygraph was asserted to have been a useful tool in counterintelligence investigations. This is a nice example of retreating into secret knowledge: we know it works, but it’s too secret to explain. The use of the polygraph (which is inevitably to say its misuse) has done little more than create confusion, ambiguity, and mistakes. I’d love to lay out this case for you, but unfortunately, I cannot – it’s a secret too. (www.sgp.fas.org)
Although used for decades, the polygraph is unreliable in determining whether a particular individual is truthful or deceptive. The presumed “scientific” basis for it lacks a verifiable theory, and the tests lack validity. The polygraph cannot deliver proof of truthfulness or deception through the tracings on the paper. The vast majority of the literature from proponents of the polygraph in the field is useless. Literature that employs an appropriate academic basis is limited and often suffers from sampling issues, lack of ground truth, and examiner bias, to name only a few problems. The widespread selection out of inconclusive test results falsely buoys exaggerated accuracy claims. “What few tests that exist are flawed. The machine is dangerous, and no person, agency, or government should rely on it to inform on important decisions” (www.nationalacademies.org).
As a screening tool, it is very problematic. Ben-Shakhur’s research states, “It is not surprising that even keen supporters of the event-related applications of the polygraph, including its use as admissible evidence, have opposed to its use for screening and selection” (Ben-Shakhur and Honts). There is no Pinocchio effect. The same physiological responses can occur during both lying and truth-telling. In an American Bar Association Journal, Lee M. Burkey stated:
The courts, arbitrators, and administrative bodies have usually justified their refusal to admit lie test results in evidence for the following reasons:
- The machine’s operation and the interpretation depend wholly on the skill of the operator, many of whom have little or no training in psychological or physiological sciences.
- The emotional state of a sensitive person may render the test less accurate or, in some instances, useless.
- The machine itself is not free from error.
- There is no conclusive proof that physical response correlates with the mental state of the subject.
In addition to finding the polygraph to be an essentially unscientific and unreliable investigative method, many recent administrative decisions also hold that its use violates the right to privacy and the right against self-incrimination. If these decisions are any guide, emphasis will probably continue to shift from science to civil rights in future cases. (Burkey)
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