Has your boss notified you he’s implementing a polygraph test for the staff in a few days? Should you feel nervous? If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about, right? But what if your boss finds out something about you from your past? Will that discovery jeopardize your job?
How accurate are polygraphs, anyway? Will they ask you about everything you ever did wrong in your life? Can you beat the polygraph and hide things you did wrong? This post unpacks what happens to the body when we lie. We’ll examine the physiological changes you undergo when lying and how that affects polygraph results.
What Happens to Our Mind and Body When We Lie?
When we lie, we’re making a conscious effort to deceive others. There are white lies, and then there are serious lies. Bluffing in a poker game is an example of a white lie, and telling your boss you didn’t steal $100 out of petty cash when you did, is an example of a serious lie.
When we tell serious lies, it wears on our conscious and subconscious minds. In most cases, severe lies go against our moral upbringing and ethical code built into our personalities throughout our life experiences. Telling severe lies makes us feel guilty and ashamed of our actions, and we want to admit the truth to someone.
When we lie to cover up our actions, and someone pressures us about our answer, it activates a primal part of the brain, initiating the “fight-or-flight” response.
Understanding the “Fight-or-Flight” Response
When you enter the polygraph exam room for your first lie detector test, your subconscious mind activates your “sympathetic nervous system” (SNS) to deal with the stress of the situation. The SNS is a primal part of the brain and the opposite of the “Parasympathetic Nervous System” (PSNS).
The PSNS activates physiological processes to calm the body, allowing you to fall asleep or rest and recover. However, the SNS activates the “fight-or-flight” biomechanism in the brain and body. The fight-or-flight response is a biological system that evolved tens of thousands of years ago by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Our ancestors would spend their time in small groups searching for food. As they wandered the landscape, they encountered predators like big cats. To avoid becoming lunch, our ancestors evolved the “fight-or-flight” response to counteract the situation of facing a predator.
When the SNS encounters a stressor, like a big cat on the plains of Africa, it signals the hypothalamus, a region in the brain. This gland tells the adrenals to release cortisol, a powerful stress hormone, and adrenaline into the bloodstream. When these two biochemicals enter circulation, it causes a heightening of the senses.
Your blood pressure rises, your pulse quickens, your pupils dilate, and you either stand your ground and fight the threat or run away as fast as you can. You’ve probably already felt the fight-or-flight response’s effects several times in your life.
If you’ve ever walked alone in a dark area and felt like someone was watching you, you probably felt a rush of fear and ran away as fast as you could. Or a bully threatened you at school, and instead of running away, you stood your ground. These are classic examples of the fight-or-flight response in modern times.
We’ve also heard stories of people in stressful situations lifting cars to get to their baby or jumping from a three-story building to escape a fire and landing unharmed. The point is the fight-or-flight response is a powerful biological reaction, and it’s built into our “autonomic” nervous system response. In other words, you don’t need to think about it to activate it – much like breathing and blinking. It’s an autonomous process that doesn’t require conscious thought.
Can You Control the Fight-or-flight Response?
The reality is you can’t control the fight-or-flight response. You might think you can, but that’s going against thousands of years of human evolution and a core tenet of what makes us human. The fight-or-flight response is there to keep us safe.
When the SNS activates the fight-or-flight response, there’s nothing we can do about it until we remove ourselves from the stressor causing this physiological reaction. You can’t control it, and you can use it at will. There’s no control over this process, even if you try to train it out of you.
To control the flight-or-flight response, you would need an understanding of how the SNS works and how it activates the hypothalamus and adrenal glands. Some people, like Shaolin monks and extreme athletes like Wim Hof, claim they can control the SNS.
However, these individuals do so with extensive training over a lifetime. Assuming you can get their capabilities in the coming 48 hours before your polygraph test is laughable.
What Happens to Our Mind and Body When We Lie on a Polygraph?
When you walk into a polygraph room for the first time, your subconscious mind is already on high alert. The subconscious mind is the part of you that always records everything you see, hear, or do. It is apart from the conscious mind, where we create our intentions and thoughts.
Your subconscious mind is like a memory bank for everything that happened to you in your life and all the information you come across. For example, a friend asks you if you remember a person from your past. You can recall what they look like, but you can’t remember their name.
You go to bed that night, wake up at three in the morning, and suddenly remember the person’s name. That’s because your subconscious mind went into the filing cabinet of your memories while you were asleep and brought the information you wanted into your conscious mind.
So, when you walk into the polygraph exam room, your subconscious mind knows what’s going on exactly, even if you try to repress it from your conscious thoughts. Even if you’re not guilty of what the examiner is testing you for, the subconscious will start going over every instance in your life where you might have done something bad.
That time you experimented with your mom’s pain medication for a few days when you were in your early twenties, or when you shoplifted that candy bar as a kid, all start swimming around in your subconscious and come bubbling to the surface in your conscious mind.
This chain reaction of thoughts primes the SNS and readies the fight-or-flight response. Suddenly, you start feeling nervous. Despite your best effort to repress that nervousness, you know it’s there in the background. That’s the SNS waiting for the trigger it needs to activate the fight-or-flight response.
All it takes is for the examiner to ask, “have you ever stolen anything?” or, “have you ever abused prescription drugs?” and the SNS triggers the fight-or-flight response.
How Does the Polygraph Examiner Determine You’re Lying?
The moment you hear those questions, your mind instantly returns to the moment you shoplifted the candy bar or took those oxycontin pain pills. You go through a lifetime of memories in a fraction of a second as you feel a jolt of electricity run around in your mind.
Suddenly, you notice your heart racing, and you feel like you want to tear the polygraph equipment off your body and run out of the room as fast as you can. But you can’t. You’re stuck in the chair, and the best you can do is answer yes or no.
While all this is happening in your mind and body, the examiner notes the responses through the data collected by the instrumentation and processed through the software on their computer. They already know they pushed a button where their question caused a powerful reaction in your physiology. Now they’re waiting for your response.
If you answer “no,” they know you’re being deceptive because they can see that the question elicited the fight-or-flight response. As a result, they will likely ask the question repeatedly to see how your reaction changes.
If you continue to answer “no,” they’ll likely fail you. However, in this case, the examiner is not testing you for your old shoplifting crime or that time you experimented with your mom’s pain medication. They don’t care about that stuff. So, by answering “yes,” the examiner will ask you to elaborate on your answer.
You tell them about your past behavior, and they will tell you that it doesn’t count towards this exam and is not what they’re asking you about. Instantly, you’ll feel a wave of relief as the brain halts the fight-or-flight response. The threat is gone, and you feel calmer immediately.
The examiner will then ask, “have you ever used drugs or stolen anything other than what you just described to me?” You answer, “no.” You notice you feel confident in your answer. The subconscious mind knows you’re telling the truth, and it doesn’t signal the conscious mind to activate the SNS and the fight-or-flight response.
The examiner will notice the difference in your physiological reaction to their question, and they might ask it again for confirmation. However, they’ll get the same response if you’re telling the truth. As a result, they assume you’re telling the truth, and you pass the polygraph.
You see, when the examiner is questioning you, they aren’t interested in everything you did wrong in your life. They understand we all do stuff we didn’t mean to do at some stage; it’s part of being human. They’re only interested in actions pertinent to the circumstances calling for the polygraph exam.
The examiner will usually tell you this before beginning the polygraph test. So, you won’t have to worry about those pain pills or the stolen candy bar in the first place.
Can You Beat a Polygraph?
It might be possible to beat the polygraph. The best examiners and polygraph technicians admit there’s a 2% margin of error in exam results. However, the likelihood of you beating a polygraph if it’s your first experience with the process is highly unlikely.
If this is your first time walking into the polygraph exam room, and you expect to beat the equipment and an examiner that may have thousands of tests on their resume, you’re in for a rude awakening. Assuming you can control the fight-or-flight response in a new setting is more than hubris.
The pressure of a new situation and circumstances will awaken the primal side of your brain and likely activate the fight-or-flight response. As a result, you’ll find yourself unable to control this biological reaction, and you’ll probably fail the test if you’re guilty.
If you think reading through articles and watching YouTube videos on how to beat a polygraph will help, you’re mistaken. In fact, this error in judgment might cause the opposite of what you expected and a failed result on the polygraph exam.
The polygraph examiner might ask you if you looked up information on how to beat a polygraph (which is very different from researching information on the polygraph process). If you answer yes, they’ll want to know why. Trying to implement countermeasures to the exam will likely result in a failed result.
Trying to use countermeasures you find online, like squeezing your sphincter or stepping on a thumb tack in your show when answering, won’t work. These countermeasures come from an era in polygraph technology before the introduction of software, algorithms, and computers to the testing procedure.
Instead, you’re likely to cause an aberrant reading in the instrumentation and software, and the examiner will immediately realize what you’re up to. They’ll likely ask you if you’re using any countermeasures, and admitting to it will cause a failed result.
Do You Go to Jail If You Fail a Polygraph?
No, a polygraph cannot send you to jail if you fail the exam. Most states do not allow polygraph results as admissible evidence in a criminal or civil trial. At best, the results of a polygraph exam may be used as corroborating evidence but never as standalone evidence proving guilt.