A polygraph or lie detector is a device which measures and records several physiological variables such as blood pressure, heart rate, respiration and skin conductivity while a series of questions is being asked, in an attempt to detect lies. A polygraph test is also known as a psychophysiological detection of deception (PDD) examination.
A typical polygraph procedure starts with a pre-test interview designed to establish a connection between the tester and the testee and to gain some preliminary information which will later be used for control questions (see below). Then the tester will explain the polygraph, emphasizing that it can detect lies and that it is important to answer truthfully. Then a "stim test" is often conducted: the testee is asked to deliberately lie and then the tester reports that he was able to detect this lie. Then the actual test starts. Some of the questions asked are irrelevant ("Are you 35 years old?"), others are "probable-lie" control questions that most people will lie about ("Have you ever stolen money?") and the remainder are the relevant questions the polygrapher is really interested in. The different types of questions alternate. The test is passed if the physiological responses during the probable-lie control questions are larger than those during the relevant questions. If this is not the case, the tester attempts to elicit admissions during a post-test interview ("Your situation will only get worse if we don't clear this up"). These admissions are the main goal of the test.
The accuracy of polygraph tests is a matter of considerable controversy. While some claim the test to be accurate in 70% - 90% of the cases, critics charge that rather than a "test", the method amounts to an inherently unstandardizable interrogation technique whose accuracy cannot be established. Polygraph tests have also been criticized for failing to catch actual spies such as Aldrich Ames, who passed two polygraph tests while spying for the Russians.
Several countermeasures designed to pass polygraph tests have been described, the most important of which is never to make any damaging admissions. Additionally, several techniques can be used to increase the physiological response during control questions. In an interview, Ames was asked how he passed the polygraph test. His response was that when told he was to be polygraphed he asked his Soviet handlers what to do, and was quite surprised that their advice was simply to relax when being asked questions, which he did.
The polygraph machine was tested for the first time on February 2, 1935 when Leonard Keeler conducted the experiment in Portage, Wisconsin. They were often used by employers in an attempt to screen out dishonest job applicants, but this practice was outlawed for most private employers in 1988. Many government agencies still apply routine lie detector tests to screen all employees. While lie detector tests are commonly used in police investigations, no defendant or witness can be forced to undergo the test. A US Supreme Court decision of 1998 left it up to the individual jurisdictions whether polygraph results could be admitted as evidence in court cases.
Polygraphs are not considered reliable evidence and are not employed by police forces in most European jurisdictions.
A related technique called the bogus pipeline involves connecting a person to a non-functioning polygraph (or other sophisticated looking device), and convincing him or her that the device can detect deception. One example might be a metal colander placed on the subject's head, with non-functional wires leading to a Xerox photocopier. When a lie is suspected, the copy button could be pushed - thus spitting out a piece of paper with the words "LIE DETECTED". There have not been any confirmed examples of this actually being used by a police department1.
Studies have shown that, compared to control conditions, individuals connected to a bogus pipeline, who believe the pipeline is able to detect lies, are more likely to provide truthful responses2. If the subject is aware of the bogus nature of the pipeline, the test has much less utility.
- Facial microexpressions may expose lying
- penile plethysmograph and vaginal photoplethysmograph, devices that allegedly measure sexual arousal.
- fruit machine, a device similar to a polygraph designed to detect homosexuality through eye movement and blush response.
- Brain fingerprinting
- Note 1: Mikkelson, B. (2000). http://www.snopes.com/legal/colander.htm, Snopes
- Note 2: Roese, N. J., & Jamieson, D. W. (1993). Twenty years of bogus pipeline research: A critical review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 363-375.