Did your boss ask you to take a polygraph test? Whatever the reason for his request, you can deny it or comply. Of course, it’s not going to reflect well on your if you decline the request, so it looks like you have a date with the polygraph examiner tomorrow.
If this is your first polygraph exam, you might suddenly feel nervous about the prospect of someone asking you penetrating questions. You might not know what they plan on asking you or what to expect from the experience.
Sitting in a chair strapped to a bunch of equipment is a harrowing ordeal for anyone to endure. Add your employer’s expectations to that anxiety, and you have a recipe for disaster. Can nervousness influence the outcome of polygraph results? What happens if you fail the test? Will you lose your job?
These thoughts aren’t easy to brush off. Failing a polygraph could change your life forever. Fortunately, we have a strategy to help you calm your nerves and make it out the other side of the test unscathed and still employed.
How Polygraph Equipment Works
A polygraph is an amazing piece of equipment. It’s the product of a technological evolution starting in the mid-1870s, and it’s still being refined to this day. Some experts state that polygraphs are unreliable, and they point to case studies from the 1980s regarding ineffective polygraph results.
The reality is polygraph technology has come a long way since these studies were published. Since then, we’ve seen refinement of the equipment used in biofeedback measurement and the introduction of software into data analysis.
Today’s polygraph systems are amazingly accurate and hard to deceive. The chances of you beating a polygraph are slim to none.
When you enter the exam room for your test, the examiner will greet you and make you feel comfortable. You’ll sit in a straight-backed chair, and the examiner will hook up corrugated rubber tubes to your chest and abdomen. They place a blood pressure cuff on your arm, a sensor on your fingertip, and electro pads on your skin.
How Polygraph Software Works
These devices send the laptop feedback on your blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and sweating activity. The laptop features software designed to interpret the signals sent to it by the equipment. Polygraph software was introduced to the process in the 1990s and changed the game.
Over the last 30+ years, developers improved and tweaked the algorithms responsible for interpreting the physiological signals sent from the instrumentation. The introduction of AI and machine learning algorithms refined the software, dramatically improving its accuracy in detecting deception.
Polygraph software engineering is a specialized field, and several companies produce versions of it. They are remarkably accurate, and the examiner relies on the software to analyze your responses and judge your behavior.
How A Polygraph Examiner Interprets the Data
A machine is just a machine. Without a human behind it, it doesn’t have any value. That’s where the polygraph examiner comes into the process. The examiner is the missing piece of the puzzle. A polygraph examiner is tasked with interpreting the results produced by the software.
The examiner asks you a set of carefully planned questions. They’ll stare at the laptop screen and the software during the exam as they ask you questions. If your body produces a response to the questions, they analyze it and make a judgment call on what it means.
The examiner records the session on video, and they’ll ask you control questions in the beginning to get a baseline of your physiological response. If you’re feeling nervous, that’s okay. They’ll likely pick that up and ask you to relax. Once they determine your baseline, they start asking you penetrating questions that are much more emotionally challenging to answer.
For instance, the examiner might ask you the following questions.
- Do you use, or have you used illegal drugs?
- Have you ever lied to an employer?
- Have you ever stolen from an employer?
- Do you have any outstanding debts?
They’ll move on to the next question if you answer no and tell the truth. However, if they suspect deception, they may repeatedly ask you the same question.
After concluding the session, the polygraph examiner will ask you to leave the room. They won’t give you the results of the test. They’ll deliver that to your boss. It takes the examiner around 24 to 48 hours to review your exam results and decide whether you’re telling the truth or being deceptive.
They review the recorded video footage and assess your body language for signs of deception. A talented, well-trained, experienced examiner can catch any sign of lying.
Why Would You Be Nervous for a Polygraph Exam?
You might be nervous about a polygraph exam for several reasons, and it’s not because you’re guilty of doing anything wrong. Some people may have issues with anxiety that make them spiral out of control emotionally when they face a stressor – like a polygraph test.
The reason you feel nervous is the same reaction the polygraph examiner looks for when they’re testing you. When we face the unknown, it activates the primal part of the brain, influencing the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) governs the body’s autonomic processes, like breathing.
These functions are out of your control. When the brain detects a threat, it activates the SNS. The SNS signals the adrenal glands in the kidneys to produce more cortisol, otherwise known as “the stress hormone.” In turn, this reaction activates the “fight-or-flight” response in the body.
Fight-or-flight is a primal reaction to stressful conditions. Our ancestors evolved this response thousands of years ago as hunter-gatherers. During these times, humans were on the menu for big cats, and these predators posed a real threat to our existence.
When the SNS activates the fight-or-flight response, the adrenaline produced by the flood of cortisol in the bloodstream heightens our senses. We become alert and ready to run or to gather the courage required to stand our ground and fight off the threat.
Fortunately, modern people don’t have predators stalking us in the shadows. However, that means we’ve adapted our behavior to activate the fight-or-flight response for other scenarios – like being told to take a polygraph.
When you sit in the chair in the interview room, you don’t know what to expect. However, the subconscious mind knows what’s going on and starts preparing the body to respond to what it assumes is a hostile threat to your safety and security.
It primes the SNS, preparing to activate the fight-or-flight response. If you can’t get your nerves under control, the SNS signals the hypothalamus to release more and more cortisol into the bloodstream, sending your adrenaline levels through the roof. Just like that, the fight-or-flight reaction is activated.
The problem is you can’t do anything about it. You’re sitting in a chair, and you can’t leave, and you can fight. You’re at the mercy of the polygraph machine and the examiner. So, when the examiner asks a question, and you know you have to lie, it sends a shockwave through your system, creating changes in your normal physiological response.
The examiner will notice these responses on their software program, and they’ll assume it’s because you’re being deceptive and trying to hide something. Essentially, your nervousness appears like the response the examiner is looking for to indicate guilt.
Can Nervousness Influence the Outcome of Your Polygraph Test?
So, yes, nervousness can affect the outcome of your polygraph test. You’re creating the same physiological response guilty people have when they lie. However, the difference is that your adrenaline and cortisol levels are so elevated they make a stable physiological response.
As a result, it interferes with the normal reading the examiner sees when interviewing guilty people, and they’ll pick up on that. It’s likely that the examiner will ask you if you’re feeling nervous and why you’re feeling that way.
You need to know that you can call an end to the polygraph exam at any point. If you’re uncomfortable and feel like a panic attack is coming, you can tell the examiner to end the session and step outside for some air.
How Do I Prepare for a Polygraph Exam?
Stick to Your Routine
Don’t do anything outside of your normal routine. You might feel panicked when you go home and take a sleeping pill to get some rest. Don’t do that if it’s not your normal behavior. The tablet could affect your biorhythms the following day and make you feel nervous.
If you eat breakfast in the morning, maintain that routine. Refrain from overloading with caffeine because you didn’t get much sleep. Caffeine produces anxiety if you have too much. Keep to your normal routine as much as possible, and don’t do anything out of the ordinary.
Clear Your Mind
Before you go into the exam room, take a break from work for ten minutes and relax. Clear your mind and medicate if you can. If you don’t know how to meditate, download the “Headspace” app, and install it on your device. Or you can listen to a guided meditation on YouTube.
Meditation helps you clear the clutter in your mind and makes you feel nervous. Just focus on your breathing and meditation. You’ll find the feeling of anxiety starts to melt away, and the tension lifts from your mind.
Talk to the Examiner
The examiner will answer any of your questions relating to the polygraph test. You can ask them what to expect, what they’ll do in the exam and the equipment they use. It’s fine to go back to your desk and start researching polygraph tests and what to expect. This research gives you an idea of what will happen during the exam.
However, reading articles on “how to beat a polygraph test” isn’t a good idea. The examiner views this as deceptive behavior. When you start the exam, they’re likely to ask you if you looked up how to beat a polygraph, and that’s it; you’re done.
Breathing is the best thing you can do to prepare for your polygraph and when sitting in the exam room. The polygraph operates by assessing the sympathetic nervous system’s response, which is closely related to feeling nervous and anxious. You can gain some level of control over its autonomic response by controlling your breathing.
When we panic, our breathing gets shallow. This shallow breathing primes the fight-or-flight response, and all it takes is a trigger, like a polygraph exam, to send you into a panic. You calm the sympathetic nervous system by taking long, deep inhales for five seconds and exhaling slowly for eight seconds, reducing the fight-or-flight response.
What Happens If I fail the Polygraph Exam?
If you fail the polygraph exam, it could be because you’re guilty of the transgression your employer is testing you for or because of your nervousness. If you’re guilty, then you’re in trouble. The boss can use the polygraph results as corroborating evidence to prove your guilt. Not only will you lose your job, but you might face criminal charges in cases like theft, embezzlement, or sexual harassment.
Fortunately, you’re not a criminal, so you don’t have to worry about that. This is a case of you being overly nervous when taking the test. The polygraph examiner deals with this problem all the time. Some people are just more anxious than others when it comes to enduring the polygraph experience.
Examiners have a trained, keen eye for these things, and they know which physiological markers to look for when assessing your responses to their questions. In most cases, they can determine the difference between nervousness and deception.
If that’s the case, they report these findings to your boss, and you probably won’t face any repercussions. At worst, they might ask you to retake the polygraph. If that’s the case, you’ll be better prepared this time because you understand the procedure and probably won’t feel as nervous.
Don’t worry about it; you’re not going to lose your job.