Can I Beat a Polygraph Exam If I’m Guilty?
Are you going for a polygraph exam? Are you worried that you’ll be caught out for something you’ve done wrong? You should be because there’s a high probability you’ll end up being caught out by the lie detector test and the examiner.
There’s a large body of information on the internet talking about how polygraphs are ineffective and easy to beat. We want to assure you that’s not the case. Most evidence supporting the view that polygraphs are inefficient and only effective around 60% to 70% of the time needs to be updated.
This information comes from the 1980s and 1990s, before the introduction of polygraph software, algorithms, and the enhancement of modern questioning techniques. The reality is the last 30+ years in the polygraph industry saw rapid growth and development of the technology.
Today’s advanced polygraph machines and well-trained examiners make it challenging for anyone to be deceptive during the polygraph exam. If you’re guilty of something, the chances are the polygraph will catch you out if you choose to lie about it.
How the Lie Detector Test Works
A polygraph exam involves entering an exam room where you’ll meet the examiner conducting the lie detector test. They’ll brief you on what to expect for the test, ask you to sit in a chair and begin the initiation process. The examiner wires you up to the polygraph software and their laptop using a collection of highly sensitive instrumentation.
They’ll place a corrugated rubber tube across your chest and abdomen, sensors on your fingers, and sometimes ask you to sit on a motion-sensor pad. These instruments measure your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, sweat gland activity, skin response, and movement.
The examiner opens the session by asking you control questions. They’ll move on to a set of questions presented to you a few days before the exam. The questions come in a yes-and-no-answer format, with no need for explanation.
During the test, the instrumentation measures your vital signs, providing feedback on their fluctuation to a software program on the examiner’s laptop. The examiner monitors your physiological feedback while asking questions, looking for signs of deception in your answers.
Understanding the Sympathetic Nervous System
The polygraph exam aims to uncover “deception” in your responses to the examiner’s questions. It operates by monitoring your body for signs of the “fight-or-flight” response. The “autonomic” nervous system is part of the central nervous system. It governs the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
The SNS is responsible for initiating the “fight-or-flight” response. We experience a fight-or-flight state when the SNS detects a stimulus we’re afraid of. It’s part of the evolution of humans, originally meant to help us escape predators.
Since the SNS and fight-or-flight response are part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), we don’t have any control over activating it. The ANS controls the autonomic actions of the body; blinking and breathing are good examples of its function.
We don’t have to think about blinking or breathing; the body does it by itself. So, the activation of the SNS and the fight-or-flight response are out of our hands. If we feel scared or on edge, the SNS primes fight-or-flight, ready to dedicate energy to its activation where necessary.
Fight or Flight? – The Sympathetic Nervous System Response
So, how does the fight-or-flight response play into polygraph examinations? When you’re under pressure to lie in the lie detector test, the body sees this stimulus as the same as being on the plains of Africa with a lion chasing you down.
The SNS signals the hypothalamus, a gland in the brain positioned just above the roof of your mouth. It requests the hypothalamus to initiate the secretion of adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal glands positioned on top of the kidneys. As these biochemicals enter the bloodstream, it primes the fight-or-flight response.
You can think of it as being on the second story of a building on fire. You feel fear of dying if you don’t escape the flames. You notice an open window and move to the opening. Under normal circumstances, you would never think of jumping out of the window.
However, in this scenario, your life is at risk, and the brain understands that you’ll die if you don’t jump. It weighs the risk of dying in flames against dying if you jump out of the window. Staying inside presents certain death, but there’s a chance you might live if you jump.
As a result of this instantaneous decision-making process, the brain initiates the fight-or-flight response. In this case, you’re fleeing the scene of the fire, escaping to safety. Sure, you might injure yourself badly if you jump, but there’s a better chance of surviving if you jump.
The fight-or-flight response causes a surge of adrenaline through your body, and you jump to safety.
The Science Behind Deception Detection
Polygraph technology analyzes the fight-or-flight response and its effects on your physiology. When adrenaline and cortisol rampage through your veins, they cause an increase in heart rate and respiration. Your blood pressure elevates, and you start to sweat.
While we experience these changes in a situation like the burning building we just mentioned, they also occur when we lie about something. The Spanish Inquisition was the first to figure this out. They would press their fingers against a subject’s jugular vein in their neck when questioning them.
The interrogators discovered that a person’s pulse rate increased when they had to lie about something to protect themselves. This discovery was the foundation of lie detector technology, and it’s come a long way in its development over the last 130 years.
During its progression, lie detector technology incorporated systems monitoring the physiological processes induced by the fight-or-flight response. When the examiner asks you a question and you lie, the body naturally activates the fight-or-flight response, increasing your pulse rate, respiration, sweat gland activity, and blood pressure.
The instrumentation notices the activity, sending feedback to the examiner’s laptop software. If you were telling the truth, there would be no response. They’ll press you on the question if they see a change, noting your response.
It’s for this reason that a lie detector test is nearly impossible to beat. You would need complete control over your body’s autonomic processes; basically, no one has this ability other than a handful of individuals on the planet.
Understanding the Limitations of Polygraph Tests
So, why do some people believe it’s possible to beat the lie detector test? Moreover, why do some people think it produces inaccurate results. Up until the early nineties, polygraph technology relied on mechanical and electrical systems.
While accurate, these machines are nowhere as precise as the modern polygraph. It was possible for individuals to use countermeasures like curling their toes or biting the inside of their cheek to throw off the polygraph and cheat the test.
However, the introduction of software, AI, algorithms, and machine learning to polygraph technology in the 1990s changed the industry. As engineers advanced these systems, the polygraph became more accurate. Unfortunately, the stigma from the 1980s remains.
So, while polygraphs are far more accurate today, many still view them as ineffective and unreliable, including the courts. Polygraph results are not admissible as evidence in court cases unless they substantiate other evidence in a case.
Despite recent studies showing the modern polygraph is up to 97% successful at detecting deception, the laws from the 1980s remain in place. What does this mean for you? It means that if you’re guilty of something and try to lie on the polygraph exam, you’ll likely be caught out.
However, it also means that the person asking you to take the polygraph can’t do much about the result, even if you fail the test. Unless they have other evidence against you, they can’t fire you from your job or reprimand you for the result.
Debunking the Myth of Using Countermeasures in Polygraphs
There’s plenty of information online about using countermeasures in polygraph exams. From physical countermeasures like clenching your butt cheeks to chemical countermeasures like taking Xanax before the test, the bad news is none of them work. Today’s polygraph technology and examiners know how to post the use of these countermeasures during the exam.
Instead, you’ll create feedback in the instrumentation and software that indicates deception, causing you to fail the exam. The examiner will likely notice this feedback and ask if you’re using a countermeasure. Then you’ll have to lie about that as well.
In fact, the mere act of reading this article to discover effective countermeasures set you up for failure in your lie detector test. Reading up on how to beat a lie detector test is an “information countermeasure.” This means you prepare your countermeasure before the exam by researching information on the internet, like this article.
Are Polygraphs Effective?
The reality is there’s no escaping the polygraph. If you’re guilty of something, there’s a high likelihood the polygraph will detect deception if you lie about it. There’s a reason why government institutions like the CIA and DOD use polygraphs – because they’re effective tools for detecting lies.
Polygraphs are an effective tool in the workplace. However, employers must comply with the legislation and framework of “The Employee Polygraph Protection Act” of 1988 when instituting a polygraph policy in the workplace.
Failing to comply with this legislation exposes them to potential lawsuits and huge fines if the court finds them in violation. Employers must ensure they hire an attorney to guide them through the process and hire qualified polygraph technicians to carry out the lie detector test.
However, if you’re undergoing a polygraph at work, chances are your boss or management has taken these precautions.
Is there Any Way to Beat a Polygraph Exam?
While polygraphs are up to 97% effective at detecting deception, every system has flaws. For instance, if you’re a pathological liar, you might have the physical ability to fool the lie detector test. This is because pathological liars have a different wiring in their brains than the average person.
Research shows pathological liars have an abnormality in their frontal cortex, preventing them from experiencing emotions of guilt or empathy. As a result, when they lie, they don’t activate the SNS and the fight-or-flight response like everyone else.
Without activating the fight-or-flight response, the polygraph machine has nothing to detect. So, pathological liars are the outlier when finding loopholes in polygraph technology. According to Ekman, around 5% of the US population are considered pathological or compulsive liars.
This small segment of the population may end up employed or running companies, but the chances of it are slim. If we combine pathological lying with the skill of hiding it from others, we end up with a form of psychopathy. In essence, if a psychopath enters the workforce and steals from a company, they may have the mental ability to avoid a polygraph detecting their deception.
Without deep psychoanalysis, it’s doubtful if standard testing procedures could detect a psychopath in the workplace. While that’s a huge problem for employers, they can relax knowing that about 1.2% of American men and 0.3% to 0.7% of American women are psychopaths.
The Risks and Consequences of Cheating a Lie Detector Test
If the examiner feels they detect deception in your lie detector test, they’ll review your exam later in the day. They’ll look at the video evidence they recorded of your session and note your physiological responses. The examiner looks for body language that reveals your deception or use of countermeasures.
The examiner reports to your boss, telling them they believe you’re acting deceptively. If your boss chooses to fire you because they feel they have a good case against you, they may not share the outcome of the test with any future employer.
However, your boss will unlikely give you a reference for your time at their company. That will make it challenging to explain to future employers when they see you have a gap in your resume. So, the verdict is that unless you’re a psychopath, the chances of you beating the lie detector test are slim to none.