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Polygraphs Essay, Research Paper


Homo Sapiens have yearned for a reliable and consistently correct way of finding

out if one is telling the truth since ancient times. ?Early societies used torture. Statements

made by a person on the rack were considered especially believable.? (Jussim, pg.65)

There was also trial by ordeal, which was based on superstition. For instance, if there

were two suspects for one crime, it was thought that the innocent would be stronger in

combat and thus vanquish a guilty opponent.

This example shows how it was done long ago. ?The ancient Hindus made

suspects chew rice and spit it into a leaf from a sacred tree. If they couldn?t spit, they

were ruled guilty. Although this procedure long predated the modern lie detector, it was

based-knowingly or not- on assumptions about psychological stress much like those that

support polygraph examinations today. The ancient test depended on the fact that fear

makes the mouth dry, so rice would stick in a guilty person?s mouth. For the procedure to

work, the subject had to believe in its accuracy and, if guilty, had to be anxious about

being caught in a lie.? (Ansley, pg. 42)

The modern polygraph is said to measure the subject?s ?internal blushes? in much

the same way. It does not really detect lies-only physiological responses. The theory

behind the polygraph is that lying always heightens these responses. When taking the test,

subjects are hooked up to a briefcase-sized machine by means of several attachments.

usually, a pneumatic tube goes around the chest to measure respiration, a cuff squeezes

one bicep to monitor blood pressure, and electrodes are attached to two fingertips to

determine the skin?s resistance to electrical current (which is related to how much the

subject is sweating). An examiner, or polygrapher, quizzes the subject. As the subject

answers the questions, the machine draws squiggles on a chart representing physiological

responses, which are supposed to clue the examiner in to the subject?s lying, or truthful,

ways. Just as the ancient Hindu was betrayed by a dry mouth the modern polygraph

subject is said to indicate that he or she is lying by breathing harder or having a racing

pulse. (In arriving at a conclusion about a person?s deceptiveness, some polygraphers also

use their own subjective observations of the person?s behavior.)

The test will not work, though, if the subject does not believe in the procedure. If

the subject doesn?t not think the machine can tell the examiner anything, then he or she

won?t be anxious and won?t show the heightened responses that the machine is designed

to record. Because of this, the examiner will often use deceptive tricks to impress the

subject with the polygraph?s alleged accuracy.

Modern polygraphy got its start in Chicago in the 1930s, where it was used in

criminal justice investigations. Now it has a wide range of other applications, including

screening job applicants and employees, conducting intelligence investigations in federal

security departments like the Central Intelligence Agency, and trying to uncover the

source of unauthorized disclosures to the press of government documents or information.

The strategies used by polygraphers vary from one application of the machine to

another. in pre-employment screens, subjects are typically asked a series of about twenty

questions. ?Irrelevant? questions like ?Is your name Fred?? serve to put the subject at

ease. Typical ?relevant? questions are: have you ever been convicted of a crime? Stolen

from a previous employer? is all the information on your employment application correct?

Do you take illegal drugs? This series is repeated, and if physiological responses to

particular relevant questions are constantly and significantly higher than responses to

others, the subject is reported as ?deceptive.?

Investigations into specific incidents are more complicated. Tin these, ?relevant?

questions concern only the alleged wrong doing-for instance, ?Did you steal the missing

$400?? To determine truthfulness, polygraph responses to these questions are compared

with responses to other questions- called ?control? questions-that are provocative but do

not relate to the incident.

The use of polygraphs in the work place greatly increased over the last fifteen

years, and now over two million of them are given annually in the United States.

Seventy-five percent of them are administered to job applicants. Other tests are given

periodically or randomly to employees or as part of an investigation in the wake of a theft

or act of sabotage. Although subjects technically submit to testing ?voluntarily? -

generally signing a release saying they are willing to undergo such an examination- they

actually have few options. Applicants who refuse a screen are not likely to be hired, and

even long-time employees who refuse risk being fired or having their decision held against

them in some way.

According to the American Polygraph Association (APA), an industry group that

promotes lie-detector use, one-fifth off all major U.S. businesses use the machine in some

capacity. The test is most commonly used by firms in which low-level employees handle

large sums of cash, such as bans and department stores. But all kinds of concerns have

tested their employees- from meat-packing companies to hospitals. Though some

companies have in-house polygraph operations, most hire a security firm to do the lie

detection for the. Generally, companies using lie detectors make submission to testing a

condition of employment.

Polygraphs are also sometimes used on state and federal government employees.

The Department of Defense (DOD) uses the polygraph more than any other federal

agency except the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA). The DOD gave 25,000

tests in 1985. The department uses polygraphs for criminal and counterintelligence

investigations and to screen people being considered for access to classifies information.

The CIA and NSA, which together have about 100,000 employees, screen all job

applicants with the machine and also use it in investigations as well as in random checks

on employees. No one refusing a pre-employment polygraph will be hired by the CIA or

NSA. In 1979, three-quarters or more of the applicants turned down for CIA jobs were

rejected because of their polygraph results. Sometimes the federal government also uses

lie detectors to track down the source of unauthorized disclosures, or ?leaks,? to the


The U.S. Postal Service uses the polygraph more than any other agency not

involved in national security. The primary use here is in investigations of mail theft.

The Office of Personnel Management strictly regulates pre-employment polygraph

programs for many federal agencies. Its rules require that any agency doing screening

have ?a mission approaching the sensitivity of that of the CIA.? The questions asked in

the course of the exam must be narrow, and the agency involved must monitor procedures

?to prevent abuses or unwarranted invasions of privacy.? The rules also require employers

to tell the subjects that they have a privilege against self-incrimination and a fight to

consult a lawyer before the test, and, in addition, that refusal to submit to a lie detector

will not be recorded in employment files.

The Defense Department has similar regulations governing polygraph use.

Defense employees can refuse lie detectors used in investigations of criminal activities or

unauthorized disclosures without suffering adverse consequences.

The Case For The Polygraph

?In 1976, a southern California commercial bakery was in a bad fix. The retailers

who bought its bread were finding pieces of glass and wire in the product, and they were

furious. Company officials suspected sabotage. Desperate, they hired Intercept, a

Hollywood company specializing in lie detection. Twenty-four hours after two

polygraphers arrived, the bakery was back to normal. In the course on an examination, a

long-time employee ?owned up?: Angered at being passed over for a promotion, he had

done the vengeful deed.? (Lykken, pg. 82)

In 1978, a gas station in Salt Lake City, Utah, called in Polygraph Screening

Service to examine its workers. Two hundred and ninety two dollars in cash had just been

discovered missing, and the company had lost another $700 in cash and goods over the

preceding month. During a ?pretest interview?-the interview that examiners often give

just prior to hookup with the polygraph- a worker confessed to charging customers for

gas and then keeping the money instead of ringing it up on the cash register. After this

worker was connected to the machine, his charts indicated strong response to queries

regarding the missing $290. He subsequently admitted that he had absentmindedly left the

key in the cashbox during a trip to the bathroom. When he next checked the box, the

money was gone.

These examples, taken from the book A Tremor in the Blood: Uses and Abuses of

the Lie Detector, by professor David Lykken, show the effectiveness and efficiency of the

polygraph in solving some problems for employers. Employers are particularly concerned

about theft, and some believe the lie detector is the answer. In a study by the U.S.

Department of Justice of employees in electronics factories, hospitals, and retail stores,

30% said they stole from the company. Generally, losses due o theft are passed on in

higher prices to customers. Some business groups say employee theft raises the price of

consumer goods by as much as 15%. One-third of all business failures are caused by

employee theft.

The APA argues, ?The best way to stop employee theft is simply not hire those

employees inclined to steal. The best way is also impossible. What the employer must do

is set up a screening process that will weed out the obvious security risks. Many experts

believe that personnel screening is the most vital safeguard against internal theft.? (APA,

pg.21) After passing polygraph screens as applicants, employees can then be polygraphed

periodically -say, one every six months- or at random. If a theft occurs nonetheless, the

polygraph is a useful tool. not only can it be helpful in tracking down the culprit, it can

clear an innocent employee who was incorrectly suspected.

The APA says that the majority of companies that adopt the lie detector cut

internal theft by over 10%. Further, they get a better idea of whether or not an applicant

is honest than they would from traditional means, such as checking references. Polygraph

supporters claim some great success stories: the case of Willoughby Peerless, a large East

Coast camera store chain, for instance. Its Philadelphia store, suffering from inventory

losses of about 14%, adopted the polygraph. The losses then decreased to 1%. And a

representative of the National Association of Convenience Stores testified at a

congressional hearing that inventory theft from its 525 member companies could be

reduced by half with the help of the lie detector.

The APA claims an accuracy rate for polygraphs of ?between 85 and 90 percent.?

(Jussim, pg.71) Though the procedure is not infallible, its proponents say it is the most

accurate way to get at the truth. Far more accurate than relying on someone?s

unsupported subjective judgment. True, a victim of an inaccurate test may not be hired

for a job, but the companies basing their decisions solely on interviews and references

make incorrect hiring decisions every day. Polygrapher John Reid boasted, ?We get better

results than a priest does.? The APA is opposed to firing an employee or charging a

suspect with a crime solely on the basis of lie detector results. It says that most employers

won?t dismiss workers without some additional evidence.

The Case Against The Polygraph

Critics of polygraph examinations say that even if they do serve to deter crime,

their cost in individual rights outweighs any benefits. They believe lie-detector use to be

unethical and sometimes illegal, and they are fighting it in the courts, in legislatures, and in

union halls. These are some of their arguments:

Polygraph tests invade privacy. Because examiners often ask personal questions not

relating specifically to the investigation at hand.

Polygraphs are unfair. Because the utility of the machines is getting people to admit

wrongdoing. But if they don?t elicit a confession, the tests may be useless or produce

?false positives,? mislabeling truthful people as liars. Accuracy problems may be

especially acute in private-sector screening, according to an aide to Senator Orrin

Hatch of Utah, who has sponsored antipolygraph legislation. He said that often

polygraphers will only spend fifteen minutes on these tests- as opposed to the four

hours they may spend in testing for national security clearance- and that examinations

are biased against the innocent. ?Nuns would fail polygraph tests, and convicts would

pass them.?

Many polygraph operators are incompetent. A lawyer for an employee who had been

fired because of a lie detector said, ?In what is a very typical pattern, the polygrapher

prove to be a retired police employee, and my cross examination of him proved that he

knew very little about the supposed ?science? of polygraphy and could no more tell

you who was telling the truth than an Ouija board.?

Polygraphs do no enhance national security. Because spies can be trained to beat the

tests. And by going after government employees who have leaked information to the

press, polygraphers support censorship.

Polygraphs are an instrument of terror. Because they are a modern version of

interrogation under torture, with examiners using pressure tactics and intimidation to

scare people into confessing. They create fear wherever they are used.


The battle over polygraphs finds civil libertarians and labor unions in a face-off

with public and private employers. With the passage of an antipolygraph bill by the House

of Representatives in 1986, the critics seem to be winning. This was the closest that

Congress had ever come to outlawing polygraphs in the private sector. The fifth

amendment of the constitution says that, ?No person . . . shall be compelled in any

criminal case to be a witness against himself.? This is mainly the reason a polygraph

examination is not admissible evidence in court. This is another complicated aspect of the

subject, the entire truth is never told. Many details, such as exactly how the lie detector

works scientifically and the entire involving court discussions and decisions were left out

of this report for a reason. They are monotonous and not needed to form your own

opinion. I do hope the information provided was enough for you to make your own

judgments and now I?d like to share mine. Personally, I support lie detectors. The

polygraph is an extremely useful tool but I agree it should not be overused. I support it in

government and higher ranking positions but not in every day employee use. In reality, I

know that such a device should not be needed because we should be able to trust each

other whether or not we personally know each other. Be that as it may, it sounds nice, but

isn?t true in this world. In this day and age, a lot of people cannot be trusted, which is too

bad. This is why I support the polygraph even though I know it would not be needed in

an utopia, but then again, what would be?

1. David Thoreson Lykken, A Tremor in the Blood: Uses and Abuses of the lie detector,

New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

2. Robert Ellis Smith, ?Just Published,? Privacy Journal, January 1987.

3. Norman Ansley and Stanley Abrams, The Polygraph Profession, Linthicum Heights,

Md.: American Polygraph Association, 1980.

4. APA, ?Polygraph: Issues and Answers,? APA pamphlet, (undated)

5. Francis J. Flaherty, ?Truth Technology,? Progressive, June 1982, pp. 30-35

6. Edward Tivnan, ?Truth and Consequences,? New York, March 12, 1984, pp. 49-52

7. Daniel Jussim, Drug Tests and Polygraphs, Julian Messner: Simon & Schuster, Inc.,


8. Jean Cobb, ?To Tell the Truth,? Common Cause Magazine, September 1985, pp.33-37

9. Dorothy J. Samuels, ?What If the Lie Detector Lies?? Nation, December 3, 1983, pp.


10. Bureau of National Affairs, Polygraphs and Employment, Washington, D.C.: BNA,



Humans have always wanted to know when a person is lying and when they are

telling the truth. Polygraphs only detect physiological responses, but that?s all it needs to

determine your guilt. When taking the test, subjects are hooked up to a briefcase-sized

machine by several attachments. On tube goes around the chest to measure respiration, a

cuff squeezes one bicep to check blood pressure, and electrodes are attached to two

fingertips to determine the skin?s resistance to electrical. The last attachment is listed

relates to how much the person is sweating. The examiner then quizzes the subject, first

with ?irrelevant? questions not specifically relating to the subject. These may last up to 4

hours. With these answers recorded on what is now a computer screen, the examiner

knows what to look for. When it comes time to ask ?relevant? questions, it takes only

fifteen minutes. This is one of many reasons critics of the polygraph give when asked to

support their views. There are many other reasons too. But, there are also numerous

reasons on why the polygraph should be supported. One very important supportive

reason is screening applicants to know if they will be or have been trustworthy. This can

be used when a crime or mishap has occurred in a store. The manager hires a polygrapher

and examines every worker. The employer must know he can trust the employee with the

information. With a nearly 90% success rate, the extra trouble is well worth it. I support

the polygraph, but know in reality we shouldn?t need one at all.

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