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Lie Detector

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Lie Detector

For other uses, see Polygraph (disambiguation).
"Lie detector" redirects here. For other methods used to ascertain truth or falsehood, see lie detection. For other uses, see Lie Detector (disambiguation).

A polygraph (popularly referred to as a lie detector) measures and records several physiological indices such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity while the subject is asked and answers a series of questions.[1] The belief underpinning the use of the polygraph is that deceptive answers will produce physiological responses that can be differentiated from those associated with non-deceptive answers.

The polygraph was invented in 1921 by John Augustus Larson, a medical student at the University of California at Berkeley and a police officer of the Berkeley Police Department in Berkeley, California.[2] According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the polygraph was on its 2003 list of greatest inventions, described by the company as inventions that "have had profound effects on human life for better or worse."[3]

The efficacy of polygraphs is debated in the scientific community. In 2001, a significant fraction of the scientific community considered polygraphy to be pseudoscience.[4] In 2002, a review by the National Academies of Science found that in populations untrained in countermeasures, polygraph testing can discriminate lying from truth telling at rates above chance, though below perfection.[5] These results apply only to specific events and not to screening where it is assumed that polygraph would work less well.[5] Effectiveness may also be worsened by counter measures.[5]

In some countries polygraphs are used as an interrogation tool with criminal suspects or candidates for sensitive public or private sector employment. US law enforcement and federal government agencies such as the FBI and the CIA and many police departments such as the LAPD use polygraph examinations to interrogate suspects and screen new employees. Within the US federal government, a polygraph examination is also referred to as a psychophysiological detection of deception (PDD) examination.

Testing procedure

Polygraph examiners, or polygraphers, typically begin polygraph test sessions with a pre-test interview to gain some preliminary information which will later be used for "control questions", or CQ. Then the tester will explain how the polygraph is supposed to work, emphasizing that it can detect lies and that it is important to answer truthfully. Then a "stim test" is often conducted: the subject is asked to deliberately lie and then the tester reports that he was able to detect this lie. Guilty subjects are likely to become more anxious when they are reminded of the test's validity. However, there are risks of innocent subjects being equally or more anxious than the guilty.[6] Then the actual test starts. Some of the questions asked are "irrelevant" or IR ("Is your name Fred?"), others are "probable-lie" control questions that most people will lie about ("Have you ever stolen money?") and the remainder are the "relevant questions", or RQ, that the tester is really interested in. The different types of questions alternate. The test is passed if the physiological responses during the probable-lie control questions (CQ) are larger than those during the relevant questions (RQ). If this is not the case, the tester attempts to elicit admissions during a post-test interview, for example, "Your situation will only get worse if we don't clear this up".[7][8]

Criticisms have been given regarding the validity of the administration of the Comparative Questions test (CQT). The CQT may be vulnerable to being conducted in an interrogation-like fashion. This kind of interrogation style would elicit a nervous response from innocent and guilty suspects alike. There are several other ways of administrating the questions.

An alternative is the Guilty Knowledge Test (GKT), or the Concealed Information Test (CIT), which is being used in Japan.[9] The administration of this test is given to prevent potential errors that may arise from the questioning style. The test is usually conducted by a tester with no knowledge of the crime or circumstances in question. The administrator tests the participant on their knowledge of the crime that would not be known to an innocent person. For example: "Was the crime committed with a .45 or a 9 mm?" The questions are in multiple choice and the participant is rated on how they react to the correct answer. If they react strongly to the guilty information, then proponents of the test believe that it is likely that they know facts relevant to the case. This administration is considered more valid by supporters of the test because it contains many safeguards to avoid the risk of the administrator influencing the results.[10]


Polygraphy has little evidence to support its use.[11][12][13] Despite claims of 90% validity by polygraph advocates,[14] the National Research Council has found no evidence of effectiveness.[12] The utility among sex offenders is also poor[15] with insufficient evidence to support accuracy or improved outcomes in this population.[16]

Even using the high estimates of polygraph's accuracy a significant number of subjects will appear to be lying, and would unfairly suffer the consequences of "failing" the polygraph. In the 1998 Supreme Court case, United States v. Scheffer, the majority stated that "There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable" and "Unlike other expert witnesses who testify about factual matters outside the jurors' knowledge, such as the analysis of fingerprints, ballistics, or DNA found at a crime scene, a polygraph expert can supply the jury only with another opinion..."[17] In 2005 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals stated that “polygraphy did not enjoy general acceptance from the scientific community”.[18] In 2001 William Iacono, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience concluded that

Although the CQT [Control Question Test] may be useful as an investigative aid and tool to induce confessions, it does not pass muster as a scientifically credible test. CQT theory is based on naive, implausible assumptions indicating (a) that it is biased against innocent individuals and (b) that it can be beaten simply by artificially augmenting responses to control questions. Although it is not possible to adequately assess the error rate of the CQT, both of these conclusions are supported by published research findings in the best social science journals (Honts et al., 1994; Horvath, 1977; Kleinmuntz & Szucko, 1984; Patrick & Iacono, 1991). Although defense attorneys often attempt to have the results of friendly CQTs admitted as evidence in court, there is no evidence supporting their validity and ample reason to doubt it. Members of scientific organizations who have the requisite background to evaluate the CQT are overwhelmingly skeptical of the claims made by polygraph proponents.


Summarizing the consensus in psychological research, professor David W. Martin, PhD, from North Carolina State University, states that people have tried to use the polygraph for measuring human emotions, but there is simply no royal road to (measuring) human emotions.[20] Therefore, since one cannot reliably measure human emotions (especially when one has an interest in hiding his/her emotions), the idea of valid detection of truth or falsehood through measuring respiratory rate, blood volume, pulse rate and galvanic skin response is a mere pretense. Psychologists cannot ascertain what emotions one has,[21] with or without the use of polygraph.

Polygraphs measure physiological arousal which can suggest deception rather than "lies".[6]

National Academy of Sciences

The accuracy of the polygraph has been contested almost since the introduction of the device. In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report entitled "The Polygraph and Lie Detection". The NAS found that the majority of polygraph research was "unreliable, unscientific and biased", concluding that 57 of the approximately 80 research studies that the American Polygraph Association relies on to come to their conclusions were significantly flawed. These studies did show that specific-incident polygraph testing, in a person untrained in counter-measures, could discern the truth at "a level greater than chance, yet short of perfection". However, due to several flaws, the levels of accuracy shown in these studies "are almost certainly higher than actual polygraph accuracy of specific-incident testing in the field".[13]

When polygraphs are used as a screening tool (in national security matters and for law enforcement agencies for example) the level of accuracy drops to such a level that "Its accuracy in distinguishing actual or potential security violators from innocent test takers is insufficient to justify reliance on its use in employee security screening in federal agencies." In fact, the NAS extrapolated that if the test were sensitive enough to detect 80% of spies (a level of accuracy which it did not assume), this would hardly be sufficient anyway. Let us take for example a hypothetical polygraph screening of a body of 10,000 employees among which are 10 spies. With an 80% success rate, the polygraph test would show that 8 spies and 1,992 non-spies fail the test. Thus, roughly 99.6 percent of positives (those failing the test) would be false positives. The NAS concluded that the polygraph "...may have some utility"[13] but that there is "little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy."[13]:212.

The NAS conclusions paralleled those of the earlier United States Congress Office of Technology Assessment report "Scientific Validity of Polygraph Testing: A Research Review and Evaluation”.[22] Similarly, a report to Congress by the Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy[23] on national security concluded that " The few Government-sponsored scientific research reports on polygraph validity (as opposed to its utility), especially those focusing on the screening of applicants for employment, indicate that the polygraph is neither scientifically valid nor especially effective beyond its ability to generate admissions..".


Several countermeasures designed to pass polygraph tests have been described. Asked how he passed the polygraph test, Aldrich Ames explained that he sought advice from his Soviet handler and received the simple instruction to: "Get a good night's sleep, and rest, and go into the test rested and relaxed. Be nice to the polygraph examiner, develop a rapport, and be cooperative and try to maintain your calm."[24] Additionally, Ames said, "`There's no special magic...Confidence is what does it. Confidence and a friendly relationship with the examiner... rapport, where you smile and you make him think that you like him.[25]

Other suggestions for countermeasures include for the subject to mentally record the control and relevant questions as the examiner reviews them prior to commencing the interrogation. Once the interrogation begins, the subject is then supposed to carefully control their breathing during the relevant questions, and to try to artificially increase their heart rate during the control questions, such as by thinking of something scary or exciting or by pricking themselves with a pointed object concealed somewhere on their body. In this way the results will not show a significant reaction to any of the relevant questions.[26][27]


Law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies in the United States are by far the biggest users of polygraph technology. In the United States alone all federal law enforcement agencies either employ their own polygraph examiners or use the services of examiners employed in other agencies.[28] This is despite their unreliability. For example in 1978 Richard Helms, the 8th Director of Central Intelligence, stated that:

"We discovered there were some Eastern Europeans who could defeat the polygraph at any time. Americans are not very good at it, because we are raised to tell the truth and when we lie it is easy to tell we are lying. But we find a lot of Europeans and Asiatics [who] can handle that polygraph without a blip, and you know they are lying and you have evidence that they are lying."[29]

Susan McCarthy of Salon said in 2000 that "The polygraph is an American phenomenon, with limited use in a few countries, such as Canada, Israel and Japan"[30]

The Americas


In Canada, the polygraph is regularly used as a forensic tool in the investigation of criminal acts and sometimes employed in the screening of employees for government organizations. In the 1987 decision of R. v. Béland, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected the use of polygraph results as evidence in court. This decision did not, however, affect the use of the polygraph in criminal investigations. The polygraph continues to be used as an investigative tool.

United States

File:DOD polygraph brochure.pdf In 2007, polygraph testimony was admitted by stipulation in 19 states, and was subject to the discretion of the trial judge in federal court. The use of polygraph in court testimony remains controversial, although it is used extensively in post-conviction supervision, particularly of sex offenders. In Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (1993),[31] the old Frye standard was lifted and all forensic evidence, including polygraph, had to meet the new Daubert standard in which "underlying reasoning or methodology is scientifically valid and properly can be applied to the facts at issue." While polygraph tests are commonly used in police investigations in the US, no defendant or witness can be forced to undergo the test. In United States v. Scheffer (1998),[32] the U.S. Supreme Court left it up to individual jurisdictions whether polygraph results could be admitted as evidence in court cases. Nevertheless, it is used extensively by prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement agencies. In the States of Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Iowa it is illegal for any employer to order a polygraph either as conditions to gain employment, or if an employee has been suspected of wrongdoing. The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA) generally prevents employers from using lie detector tests, either for pre-employment screening or during the course of employment, with certain exemptions.[33] As of 2013, about 70,000 job applicants are polygraphed by the federal government on an annual basis.[34]

In the United States, the State of New Mexico admits polygraph testing in front of juries under certain circumstances. In many other states, polygraph examiners are permitted to testify in front of judges in various types of hearings (Motion to Revoke Probation, Motion to Adjudicate Guilt).

In 2010 the NSA produced a video explaining its polygraph process.[35] The video, ten minutes long, is titled "The Truth About the Polygraph" and was posted to the website of the Defense Security Service. Jeff Stein of the Washington Post said that the video portrays "various applicants, or actors playing them -- it’s not clear -- describing everything bad they had heard about the test, the implication being that none of it is true."[36] argues that the NSA-produced video omits some information about the polygraph process; it produced a video responding to the NSA video.[35] George Maschke, the founder of the website, accused the NSA polygraph video of being "Orwellian".[36]

By August 2013 the U.S. federal government had begun indicting individuals who stated that they were teaching methods on how to defeat a polygraph test.[34] It investigated Doug Williams, a former police officer from Oklahoma City who conducted courses on how to defeat a polygraph test.[37] A sting was conducted on Chad Dixon, a former little league coach in Indiana who taught methods on how to beat a polygraph tests to up to 100 people throughout the U.S., resulted in him pleading guilty to charges of obstruction and wire fraud. In 2013 federal prosecutors asked the judge to sentence Dixon to one year and nine months, saying that Dixon had “career of criminal deceit” and taught how to defeat a polygraph to applicants to law enforcement jobs, employees of intelligence services, and child molesters.[38] He received an eight month sentence.[39]



Recently an Indian court adopted the brain electrical oscillations signature test as evidence to convict a woman, who was accused of murdering her fiance. It is the first time that the result of polygraph was used as evidence in court.[40] On May 5, 2010, The Supreme Court of India declared use of narcoanalysis, brain mapping and polygraph tests on suspects as illegal and against the constitution.[41] Article 20(3) of the Indian Constitution-"No person accused of any offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself." Polygraph tests are still legal if the defendant requests one.


The High Court of Israel, in Civil Appeal 551/89 (Menora Insurance Vs. Jacob Sdovnik), ruled that as the polygraph has not been recognized as a reliable device, polygraph results are inadmissible as evidence in a civil trial. In other decisions, polygraph results were ruled inadmissible in criminal trials. However, some insurance companies attempt to include a clause in insurance contracts, in which the beneficiary agrees that polygraph results be admissible as evidence. In such cases, where the beneficiary has willingly agreed to such a clause, signed the contract, and taken the test, the courts will honor the contract, and take the polygraph results into consideration. Interestingly, it is common practice for lawyers to advise people who signed such contracts to refuse to take the test. Depending on whether or not the beneficiary signed an agreements clause, and whether the test was already taken or not, such a refusal usually has no ill effects; at worst, the court will simply order the person to take the test as agreed. At best, the court will cancel the clause and release the person from taking the test, or rule the evidence inadmissible.


In most European jurisdictions, polygraphs are not considered reliable evidence and are not generally used by law enforcement. Courts themselves do not order or facilitate polygraph testing. In most cases, polygraph tests are voluntarily taken by a defendant in order to substantiate his or her defense.


The Federal Court of Justice of Germany has ruled that polygraph evidence is inherently inconclusive and not admissible in court. Motions by prosecution or defense for polygraph tests to be exercised will be declined under any circumstance.[42]



The High Court of Australia has not yet considered the admissibility of polygraph evidence. However, the New South Wales District Court rejected the use of the device in a criminal trial. In Raymond George Murray 1982 7A Crim R48 Sinclair DCJ refused to admit polygraph evidence tending to support the defense. The judge rejected the evidence because

  1. The veracity of the accused and the weight to be given to his evidence, and other witnesses called in the trial, was a matter for the jury.
  2. The polygraph "expert" sought to express an opinion as to ultimate facts in issue, which is peculiarly the province of the jury.
  3. The test purported to be expert evidence by the witness who was not qualified as an expert, he was merely an operator and assessor of a polygraph. The scientific premise upon which his assessment was based had not been proved in any Court in Australia.
  4. Devoid of any proved or accepted scientific basis, the evidence of the operator is hearsay which is inadmissible.

The Court cited, with approval, the Canadian case of Phillion v R 1978 1SCR 18.

Lie detector evidence is currently inadmissible in New South Wales courts under the Lie Detectors Act.[43]

Security clearances

In the American military and intelligence communities, polygraphs have been administered both as terms of qualifying for a security clearance and as part of a periodic reinvestigation to retain a clearance. There is no uniform standard for whether the polygraph is needed, as some methods of adjudication do not demand a successful polygraph test to earn a clearance. Other agencies, particularly certain military units, actually prohibit polygraph testing on their members. According to a report to Congress,[23] polygraphy in the security clearance context has little utility in detecting untruth, but significant utility in inducing verbal admissions. That is, polygraphy is mainly useful as a prop in the interrogation process. Further, this likely accounts for its continuing use by government agencies.

It is difficult to precisely determine the effectiveness of polygraph results for the detection or deterrence of spying. Failure of a polygraph test could cause revocation of a security clearance, but it is inadmissible evidence in most federal courts and military courts martial. The polygraph is more often used as a deterrent to espionage rather than detection. One exception to this was the case of Harold James Nicholson, a CIA employee later convicted of spying for Russia. In 1995, Nicholson had undergone his periodic five year reinvestigation where he showed a strong probability of deception on questions regarding relationships with a foreign intelligence unit. This polygraph test later launched an investigation which resulted in his eventual arrest and conviction. In most cases, however, polygraphs are more of a tool to "scare straight" those who would consider espionage. Jonathan Pollard was advised by his Israeli handlers that he was to resign his job from American intelligence if he was ever told he was subject to a polygraph test. Likewise, John Anthony Walker was advised to by his handlers not to engage in espionage until he had been promoted to the highest position for which a polygraph test was not required, to refuse promotion to higher positions for which polygraph tests were required, and to retire when promotion was mandated.[44] As part of his plea bargain agreement for his case of espionage for the Soviet Union, Robert Hanssen would be made to undergo a polygraph at any time as part of damage assessment. In Hanssen's 25-year career with the FBI, not once was he made to undergo a polygraph. He later said that if he had been ordered to, he may have thought twice about espionage.

Alternatively, the use of polygraph testing, where it causes desperation over dismissal for past dishonesty, may encourage spying. For example, Edward Lee Howard was dismissed from the CIA when, during a polygraph screening, he truthfully answered a series of questions admitting to minor crimes such as petty theft and drug abuse. In retaliation for his perceived unjust punishment for minor offenses, he later sold his knowledge of CIA operations to the Soviet Union.[45]

It is also worth noting that polygraph tests may not deter espionage. From 1945 to the present, at least six Americans had been committing espionage while they successfully passed polygraph tests. Two of the most notable cases of two men who created a false negative result with the polygraphs were Larry Wu-Tai Chin and Aldrich Ames. Ames was given two polygraph examinations while with the CIA, the first in 1986 and the second in 1991. The CIA reported that he passed both examinations after experiencing initial indications of deception.[46] According to a Senate investigation, an FBI review of the first examination concluded that the indications of deception were never resolved.[47] The Senate committee reported that the second examination, at a time when Ames was under suspicion, resulted in indications of deception and a retest a few days later with a different examiner. The second examiner concluded that there were no further indications of deception. In the CIA's analysis of the second exam, they were critical of their own failure to convey to their examiner the existing suspicions that were not addressed in the examination. Also, Cuban spy, Ana Belen Montes passed a counterintelligence scope polygraph test administered by DIA in 1994.[48]

Despite these errors, in August 2008, the US Defense Intelligence Agency announced that it would subject each of its 5,700 prospective and current employees to polygraph testing at least once annually.[49] This expansion of polygraph screening at DIA occurred while DIA polygraph managers ignored documented technical problems discovered in the Lafayette computerized polygraph system.[50] DIA uses computerized Lafayette polygraph systems for routine counterintelligence testing. The impact of the technical flaws within the Lafayette system on the analysis of recorded physiology and on the final polygraph test evaluation is currently unknown.[51]

In 2012, a McClatchy investigation found that the National Reconnaissance Office was possibly breaching ethical and legal boundaries by encouraging its polygraph examiners to extract personal and private information from DoD personnel during polygraph tests that purported to be limited to counterintelligence issues.[52] Allegations of abusive polygraph practices were brought forward by former NRO polygraph examiners.[53]

Alternative tests

Most polygraph researchers have focused more the exam's predictive value on a subject’s guilt. However, there have been no empirical theories established to explain how a polygraph measures deception. Recent research indicates that Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) may benefit in explaining the psychological correlations of polygraph exams. It could also explain which parts of the brain are active when subjects use artificial memories.[54] Most brain activity occurs in both sides of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is linked to response inhibition. This indicates that deception involves a subject’s inhibition of certain questions, such as attempting to be truthful while lying. Recalling artificial memories are known to activate the posterior cingulate cortex. However, fMRIs are limited to being expensive, immobile, and having inconsistent lying responses. Some researchers believe that reaction time (RT) based tests may replace polygraphs in concealed information detection. RT based tests differ from polygraphs in stimulus presentation duration, and can be conducted without physiological recording as subject response time is measured via computer. However, researchers have found limitations to these tests as subjects voluntarily control their reaction time, deception can still occur within the response deadline, and the test itself lacks physiological recording.[55]


Earlier societies utilized elaborate methods of lie detection which mainly involved torture; for instance, the Middle Ages used boiling water to detect liars as it was believed honest men would withstand it better than liars.[56] Early devices for lie detection include an 1895 invention of Cesare Lombroso used to measure changes in blood pressure for police cases, a 1904 device by Vittorio Benussi used to measure breathing, and an abandoned project by American William Marston which used blood pressure to examine German prisoners of war (POWs).[57] Marston’s machine indicated a strong positive correlation between systolic blood pressure and lying.[58]

Marston wrote a second paper on the concept in 1915, when finishing his undergraduate studies. He entered Harvard Law School and graduated in 1918, re-publishing his earlier work in 1917.[59] Marston's main inspiration for the device was his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston.[56] "According to Marston’s son, it was his mother Elizabeth, Marston’s wife, who suggested to him that 'When she got mad or excited, her blood pressure seemed to climb'" (Lamb, 2001). Although Elizabeth is not listed as Marston’s collaborator in his early work, Lamb, Matte (1996), and others refer directly and indirectly to Elizabeth’s work on her husband’s deception research. She also appears in a picture taken in his polygraph laboratory in the 1920s (reproduced in Marston, 1938)."[60][61] The comic book character, Wonder Woman, by William Marston (and influenced by Elizabeth Marston[62][63]) carries a magic lasso modelled upon the pneumograph (breathing monitor) test.[62][64]

Despite his predecessor's contributions, Marston styled himself the “father of the polygraph” . Marston remained the device's primary advocate, lobbying for its use in the courts. In 1938 he published a book, The Lie Detector Test, wherein he documented the theory and use of the device.[65] In 1938 he appeared in advertising by the Gillette company claiming that the polygraph showed Gillette razors were better than the competition.[66][67][68]

A device recording both blood pressure and galvanic skin response was invented in 1921 by Dr. John Augustus Larson of the University of California and first applied in law enforcement work by the Berkeley Police Department under its nationally renowned police chief August Vollmer. Further work on this device was done by Leonarde Keeler.[69] As Larson's protege, Keeler updated the device by making it portable and added the galvanic skin response to it in 1939. His device was then purchased by the FBI, and served as the prototype of the modern polygraph.[70]

Several devices similar to Keeler's polygraph version included the Berkeley Psychograph, a blood pressure-pulse-respiration recorder developed by C. D. Lee in 1936[71] and the Darrow Behavior Research Photopolygraph, which was developed and intended solely for behavior research experiments.[71][72]

A device which recorded muscular activity accompanying changes in blood pressure was developed in 1945 by John E. Reid, who claimed that greater accuracy could be obtained by making these recordings simultaneously with standard blood pressure-pulse-respiration recordings.[71][73]

Society and culture

Lie detection has a long history in mythology and fairy tales; the polygraph has allowed modern fiction to use a device more easily seen as scientific and plausible. Notable instances of polygraph usage include uses in crime and espionage themed television shows and some daytime television talk shows, cartoons and films. The most notable polygraph TV show is Lie Detector, which first aired in the 1950s created and hosted by Ralph Andrews. In the 1960s Andrews produced a series of specials hosted by Melvin Belli. In the 1970s the show was hosted by Jack Anderson. In 1998 TV producer Mark Phillips with his Mark Phillips Philms & Telephision put Lie Detector back on the air on the FOX Network—on that program Dr. Ed Gelb with host Marcia Clark cleared Mark Fuhrman from the allegation that he "planted the bloody glove". Later Phillips produced Lie Detector as a series for PAX/ION—some of the guests included Paula Jones, Reverend Paul Crouch accuser Lonny Ford, Ben Rowling, Jeff Gannon and Swift Boat Vet, Steve Garner.

FOX has taken this one step further with their game show The Moment of Truth which pits people's honesty against their own sense of modesty, propriety, etc. Contestants are given a polygraph test administered by a polygraph expert in a pre-screening session answering over 50 questions. Later they must sit in front of a studio audience including their friends & family for the televised portion of the show. There they need only answer 21 answers truthfully "as determined by the polygraph" to win $500,000. The questions get more personal and/or more revealing as they advance. Most polygraph experts caution that the polygraph techniques used on Moment of Truth do not conform to any known or accepted methods of polygraphy.

Daytime talk shows, such as Maury Povich and Steve Wilkos, frequently use lie detectors to tell if someone is cheating on their significant other.

In one MacGyver episode 'Slow Death', MacGyver assists the Indian tribesmen by improvising a polygraph to weed out the crooked doctor. This is made possible by using an analog sphygmomanometer to monitor blood pressure change, and an electronic alarm clock to detect sweat. To test its reliability, MacGyver asked a passenger on the train a few 'placebo' questions. The culprit was only discovered when he was trying to hide his crime, thus his sweat triggered the alarm clock and blood pressure climbed up.

In the movie Harsh Times the protagonist, played by actor Christian Bale, is caught trying to "beat" a polygraph test during a pre-employment screening for a federal law enforcement job. He stores a tack in the toe of his shoe and uses the pain sensation to mask his true apprehension of certain questions. The polygrapher is immediately suspicious and the examination is ended.

In the movie Ocean's 13, one of the characters beats a polygraph test by stepping on a tack when answering truthfully, which supposedly raises the polygraph's readings for the truthful answers so they equal the deceptive ones.

In the television series Profit, there is a memorable sequence at the end of episode "Healing" where the eponymous character, Jim Profit, manages to fool a polygraph. He does that by putting a nail through the sole of his shoe and pushing it inside of his heel while answering every question in order to even out the readings. This scene is very graphic, especially for its time, 1996. During a voice over, Profit explains the theory behind the polygraph and the flaws he intends to exploit in it.

In episode 93 of the USA popular science show Mythbusters, they attempted to fool the polygraph by using pain to try to increase the readings when answering truthfully (so the machine will supposedly interpret the truthful and non-truthful answers as the same.) They also attempted to fool the polygraph by thinking happy thoughts when lying and thinking stressful thoughts when telling the truth to try to confuse the machine. However, neither technique was successful for a number of reasons. Michael Martin correctly identified each guilty and innocent subject. The show also noted the opinion that, when done properly, polygraphs are correct 80-99% of the time.[74]

Hand-held lie detector for U.S. military

A hand-held lie detector is being deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense according to a report in 2008 by investigative reporter Bill Dedman of The Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening System, or PCASS, captures less physiological information than a polygraph, and uses an algorithm, not the judgment of a polygraph examiner, to render a decision whether it believes the person is being deceptive or not. The device will be used first in Afghanistan by U.S. Army troops. The Department of Defense ordered to limit its use to non-U.S. persons, in overseas locations only.[75]

Notable cases

Polygraphy has also been faulted for failing to trap known spies such as double-agent Aldrich Ames, who passed two polygraph tests while spying for the Soviet Union.[49][76] Other spies who passed the polygraph include Karl Koecher,[77] Ana Belen Montes,[78] and Leandro Aragoncillo.[79] However, CIA spy Harold James Nicholson failed his polygraph examinations, which aroused suspicions that led to his eventual arrest.[80] Polygraph examination and background checks failed to detect Nada Nadim Prouty, who was not a spy but was convicted for improperly obtaining US citizenship and using it to obtain a restricted position at the FBI.[81]

The polygraph also failed to catch Gary Ridgway, the "Green River Killer". Another suspect, Melvin Foster, allegedly failed a given lie detector test whereas Ridgeway passed.[58] Ridgway passed a polygraph in 1984 and confessed almost 20 years later when confronted with DNA evidence.[82]

Conversely, innocent people have been known to fail polygraph tests. In Wichita, Kansas in 1986, after failing two polygraph tests (one police administered, the other given by an expert that he had hired), Bill Wegerle had to live under a cloud of suspicion of murdering his wife Vicki Wegerle, even though he was neither arrested nor convicted of her death. In March 2004, a letter was sent to The Wichita Eagle reporter Hurst Laviana that contained Vicki's drivers license and what first appeared to be crime scene photographs of her body. The photos had actually been taken by her true murderer, BTK,[83] the serial killer that had plagued the people of Wichita since 1974 and had resurfaced in February 2004 after an apparent 25 year period of dormancy (he had actually killed three women between 1985 and 1991, including Wegerle). That effectively cleared Bill Wegerle of the murder of his wife. In 2005, conclusive DNA evidence, including DNA retrieved from under the fingernails of Vicki Wegerle, demonstrated that the BTK Killer was Dennis Rader.[84]

Prolonged polygraph examinations are sometimes used as a tool by which confessions are extracted from a defendant, as in the case of Richard Miller, who was persuaded to confess largely by polygraph results combined with appeals from a religious leader.[85]

In the high-profile disappearance of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam of San Diego in 2002, neighbor David Westerfield became the prime suspect when he failed his polygraph with a greater than 99% probability he was lying.[86] He was ultimately tried and convicted. But the 99% claim has been challenged because the examiner kept the space heater on, making Westerfield uncomfortably hot; he constantly adjusted his machine, he said because the readings were too low; and he made a number of subtle changes to the questions he said he was going to ask, even though he said he wouldn’t.[87] The examiner thought Westerfield’s alibi, a meandering weekend trip, was "as crazy as it gets"; he interviewed him for 3 hours, and at the end of the test, accused him of being involved in Danielle’s disappearance.[88] Westerfield attributed his failing the test to his compassion for Danielle's family.[89] In subsequent letters he said that, a couple of days later, they discovered that his test contained false results and they asked him to retake the test, but his attorney, who said it probably meant that the first test wasn’t set up right, wouldn’t allow it.[90]

See also


Further reading

  • Aftergood, Steven. "Science. 3 November 2000: Vol. 290 no. 5493 pp. 939–940 DOI: 10.1126/science.290.5493.939.
  • Bunn, Geoffrey C. The Truth Machine: A Social History of the Lie Detector (Johns Hopkins University Press; 2012) 256 pages
  • Blinkhorn, S. (1988) "Lie Detection as a psychometric procedure" In "The Polygraph Test" (Gale, A. ed. 1988) 29-39.
  • Cumming, Alfred (Specialist in Intelligence and National Security). "Congressional Research Service. February 9, 2009.
  • Maschke, G.W. & Scalabrini, G.J. (2005) The Lie Behind the Lie Detector. 3rd ed. Available on-line at
  • McCarthy, Susan. "Salon. March 2, 2000.
  • edit
  • Taylor, Marisa (Tish Wells contributed). "McClatchy. Thursday December 6, 2012.

External links

  • Police Polygraph Test Information
  • American Polygraph Association
  •, a website critical of polygraphy
  • History of the Polygraph by Jim Fisher
  • Interviewing with an Intelligence Agency First person account of NSA interview (including polygraph)
  • The Polygraph Museum Historical photographs and descriptions of polygraph instruments.
  • Technology of Truth by Ken Alder. Magazine article about the history of the lie detector.
  • The North American Polygraph and Psychophysiology: Disinterested, Uninterested, and Interested Perspectives by John J. Furedy, International Journal of Psychophysiology, Spring/Summer 1996
  • MSNBC April 9, 2008.
  • , July 1937
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