• What is often referred to as “the polygraph" is actually a set of relatively complex procedures for asking questions and measuring physiological responses in order to detect deception or establish truth. Polygraph testing is employed for a variety of uses, ranging from ascertaining the guilt of a criminal suspect to assessing the honesty of a prospective employee. Because different polygraph procedures are required depending on intended use, it is necessary to consider validity by polygraph technique and situation. The courts have found themselves disagreeing on methods to establish validity for purposes of admissibility of evidence, where the critical focus of such judgment should rest. In addition, courts are inconsistent about what decision to make on the basis of judicial findings of fact regarding the validity of a diagnostic or predictive device. So, in summary there is really no agreement as to the accuracy of polygraph testing. People have been known to "beat" the machine and also there have been false positive responses from people telling the truth.
  • As the previous person said they detect stress response. That comes about from activity of the sympathetic nervous system. The various attachments can detect heart rate, respiratory rate and skin conductance which is altered by sweating. Many of these funcions are usuallu beyond our conscious control.
  • The accuracy of polygraph tests is not high enough to be considered proof. Stress can produce false positives, and they do not work on compulsive liars. Also people can be trained to pass them.
  • A co-worker of mine took a polygraph test and one of the questions that came up was whether you have stolen- A.) More than $1000 B.) Between $300 and $1000 or C.) Less than $300. She chose letter C. And they determined that she was lying about it but when she was later confronted with the question she said that she chose letter C because she had not ever stolen anything in her life. So technically she "lied" but it was over a question that would not give her the opportunity to tell the truth. And that is one of the problems with accuracy- Not every examiner will ask the right questions or do a post test interview in order to make an assessment of whether or not this person is lying. As humans we are not perfect as it is. Certainly we ought not depend on a machine to tell us who we should trust. A former federal agent once told me that a polygraph machine is nothing more than an intimidation tool that they use to get a confession out of a suspect. What they would do many years ago is show the suspect several pictures and images and when there was a change in heart rate or stress levels they could determine that there was some familiarity. When questioning the suspect they would offer him a deal for telling the truth and when they would ask him certain questions and the machine would start going crazy with the needles going back and forth it would sometimes scare the guy into saying, "OK I DID IT!"
  • I am only adding to the other answers here, not trying to give a complete answer. Having been through numerous hours of this torture, I can add some insight. First and foremost is the polygrapher (the person asking the questions). They can be really good or really bad. For example: Q. Have you ever had a run in with the law? A. Yes. (They stop and query to get deeper--in my case, I am very literal and by golly I have gotten a speeding ticket or two. Which is, in my mind, a "run in with the law". No kidding, the follow on questions off the machine were ridiculous and accusatory for no reason at all.) Q. Your name is _________________? A. (Insert name here) (Stop again and tell me that I lied. For crying out loud! They have a file on me a mile long: credit reports, divorce decree, marriage license, passport, driver's license, they even talked to my Mom!) I was so irritated over the law question that it showed and she was trying to reconfirm a baseline by asking me the name question (which showed that I had not lied before). Then a few years later I was due for another and they brought up a very sensitive and distressing topic mid-poly and the remainder of that session was wildly "inconclusive" Several people I know have similar stories and we get a good laugh over them once the straps are off. Ahhh, yes, lest I forget to mention that a severe amount of pain and/or discomfort will throw the thing too. I had blood blisters and bruises after my first one since the straps were on way too tight. The more I complained, the tighter she made 'em. Nice. Personally, I think they are virtually useless. And the polygraphers are as useless most of the time. To be good at it, one has to have a certain amount of common sense. My favorites are the time I was asked if I was a drug dealer. This came from the fact that I brought back some cold medicine from the U.K. for my Dad and only realized after the fact that it contained a minsiscule amount of some barbituate. Or one of my collegues endured a rough grilling and accusation that they were an alcoholic because they answered "yes" when asked if they had a problem with alcohol. She did, she has an unbelievably low tolerance for it and to her that was a "problem". It might also help to mention that she is foreign and did not fully understand the question. Sorry to rant and rave, but I really hate these things.
  • They measure a number of different physical symptoms at the same time (which is why they are called polygraphs). Particularly heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and skin conductivity (i.e. sweatiness). The idea is that if you know that you are telling an untruth, you may be able to keep all all conscious symptoms, like your face and voice, under control, but you cannot affect these involuntary symptoms. If several of them jump together (a matter for interpretation by the operator) you are probably lying. I do not believe that they work except with a very skilled operator and under a level of intensity of questioning which would amount to interrogation, not questioning. And I certainly don't believe that the results would be appropriate for court or employment use. At best they can be a straw in the wind telling you that there is something to look for.
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