Polygraphs are highly effective at uncovering deception. They’re a staple in candidate and employee interviews in national security organizations like the CIA and FBI and high-risk industries like high-value asset transportation.
According to the American Polygraph Association, the lie detector test has an accuracy rate of 87%, and software developers think it’s closer to 97%. Regardless of the discrepancy between findings, it’s clear that polygraphs can sniff out a liar most of the time.
Notice we said most of the time. The reality is the system isn’t infallible, and some people do fall through the cracks. So, how do you beat a polygraph exam? Well, you can’t, really. Using countermeasures like squeezing your thigh, biting your cheek while answering questions, or dropping Xanax before the test is ineffective at concealing deception.
So, how can people beat a lie detector? We’ll have to look into people’s psychology for the answer.
What Is Compulsive Lying?
Compulsive liars enjoy lying, and they prefer telling lies to the truth. They typically grow up with their parents or people around them lying, developing a chronic lying habit as children. Or they might discover that they can get away with telling lies to their parents and caregivers when they’re kids.
These individuals end up carrying this behavior with them into their teenage years and early adulthood. Most compulsive liars grow out of the habit when they reach adulthood, but some stick with it; it depends on their situation.
Traits of Compulsive Liars
Compulsive liars are usually easy to spot after you get to know them. They’re always telling wild stories that seem unbelievable, and that’s because they’re lying to you. For instance, the compulsive liar might tell people around them that they met a famous musician once and got invited to hang out with them backstage.
They made such a great impression that the rockstar invited them to their lake house for the weekend, and they partied the night away, meeting all these famous people. Or they might tell smaller lies involving their actions, such as saying they’re the one responsible for filling up the coffee machine when someone else did it.
Despite lying all the time, compulsive liars are usually not great at it. They typically show common physiological signs and body language indicating deceptive behavior. For instance, they’ll look away from you when they make up a fib or drop their shoulders or turn up the corners of their mouths.
If you find out a compulsive liar is lying to you and confront them, they usually admit to it.
What Is Pathological Lying?
A pathological liar has many of the same traits as a compulsive liar, meaning they lie a lot. However, what defines pathological liars is that they have an underlying pathology causing their condition. Some of these pathologies include personality disorders like OCD, bipolar, narcissism, and the most common cause of the condition – antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).
However, not everyone who develops a personality disorder or has one of the above pathologies becomes a pathological liar. Around 30% of people with ASPD develop the behavior. However, there’s an issue with the problem when people exhibiting sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies due to their ASPD become pathological liars.
Traits of Pathological Liars
As mentioned, pathological liars usually develop their behavior and implement their lies the same way that compulsive liars do. They may tell wild, unbelievable stories and the like. However, the primary difference between pathological and compulsive liars is that they’re better at the behavior.
Many won’t exhibit the signs of lying behavior like compulsive liars do. For instance, they can stare you straight in the eyes as they lie and not hesitate. Compulsive liars will also become argumentative, upset, or distractive when you confront them about their lying behavior.
Sociopathic and psychopathic pathological liars can be dangerous people. The sociopathic pathological liar is usually more fantastical and high-risk than the psychopathic liar, why the other is cool and calculating. However, both of them typically lie for the same purpose, personal gain.
They don’t experience empathy, so they don’t feel any sense of guilt or remorse around their lying behavior, even if it comes at a cost to the people around them. They aren’t concerned with hurting others, and some of them may even get a lick out of lying to other people and getting away with it or seeing them fail because of a lie they told them.
They’re malicious people and don’t have the same communication between the prefrontal cortex and the frontal lobes that other people have when lying. As a result, there’s no pressure on the amygdala, and these individuals don’t develop feelings of guilt because their brains are wired differently.
How Does the Polygraph Exam Detect a Liar?
The polygraph device and examiner use the activation of the “fight-or-flight” (FoF) response in the examinee to determine if they’re lying during the lie detector test. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for governing the FoF, and it launches the response when we feel threatened.
If you’re entering the exam room to take a polygraph, chances are you’re feeling nervous. If the examiner starts the test and asks you a question that forces you to lie to protect yourself, you’ll activate the FoF. When we launch the FoF, it elevates our blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory activity. It also creates changes in the skin’s electrical response, and we experience a light layer of perspiration.
These are all natural responses, and they’re out of our control. The SNS is part of the “autonomous nervous system,” which regulates kidney function and other aspects of our physiology. So, you can’t control the FoF any more than you can bodily functions like heart rate – the body does it automatically for you based on our physiological and environmental requirements.
The FoF activates immediately; there’s no lag. It’s an instantaneous process; you’ll feel it sitting in the examiner’s chair. It’s like you get butterflies in your stomach or feel and jolt running through your body.
The software the examiner connects to the instruments placed on your body detects the activation of the FoF, presenting the data to the examiner in chart format. If the examiner detects signs of deception in your answers, they might repeat the questions, ensuring they get a confirmation of results.
The examiner closes the session, and they don’t let you know if you pass the test right then and there. Instead, they’ll review the test results and video recording of the session later at their office before contacting the client that hired them with the test results.
How Do Compulsive Liars Respond in Lie Detector Tests?
Compulsive liars typically respond like everyone else when taking a lie detector test. They feel the FoF response when they lie but don’t let it stop them from lying. Since they don’t get defensive when you confront them about lying, they may even admit to lying in the session.
Compulsive liars also can’t hide their body language, and if the examiner reviews the recorded footage of the session later, they’ll spot the changes in body language. So, compulsive liars probably won’t pass a lie detector test if they try to lie their way out of it.
How Do Pathological Liars Respond in Lie Detector Tests?
While it’s easy to spot a compulsive liar in a polygraph exam, it might not be as easy to catch a pathological liar. The average pathological liar may exhibit signs of the FoF response, allowing the examiner to uncover their deception.
However, the main issue with pathological liars going undetected stems from those that have sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies. As mentioned, these people don’t have the same reaction in the brain when lying; in fact, many of them believe the lies they tell.
So, they don’t feel sensations of guilt or shame about telling lies. As a result, they won’t activate the FoF when they tell a lie. Since the polygraph has no FoF to detect, they pass the test. If the examiner reviews the video recording, they might not notice any body language indicating the person is lying.
Psychopathic pathological liars are cunning and manipulative, especially those on the psychopathic side of the spectrum. They can remain cool and calm under intense scrutiny and
they might be aware of the body language cues associated with lying.
All these factors make it very challenging for the polygraph and the examiner to detect them. We talked about the lie detector having some leeway to allow for ineffective results, and these liars usually slip through the exam undetected.
How Do You Navigate Conversations with Compulsive & Pathological Liars?
If you suspect you have a pathological or compulsive liar in your life, you’ll need to learn how to deal with them. Many people decide to end their contact with these people when they discover their lying behavior. As humans, we value the truth, and when we find out people are lying to us all the time, we stop trusting them.
For this reason, pathological and compulsive liars find it challenging to develop relationships outside of their direct family or a significant other. These liars fail to establish long-lasting relationships, especially pathological liars with underlying mental health disorders.
For instance, the pathological liar who suffers from ASPD may not enjoy being around others to an extent. They don’t see any benefit in getting close to people, and many lead solitary lives. They’ll lie around other people to get attention, but with the specific intent of using the behavior to achieve a particular goal.
So, how do you deal with a pathological or compulsive liar? That’s a challenging question to answer. It depends on the extent of their disorder and what underlying pathologies they have, if any. We recommend taking the following approach when dealing with a pathological or compulsive liar.
Stay Calm & Don’t Engage with Them
It’s easy to become frustrated with a pathological or compulsive liar when you discover their behavior. However, there’s no point in getting angry with them as your reaction won’t change their outlook on life or cause them to stop lying.
Don’t engage in their attempts to convince you that you’re mistaken. Just agree with what they have to say and tell them that you know that they’re lying. Don’t get involved in a heated argument with them; you’ll always come out as the loser. It’s better just to let them know you’re aware of their activity and leave it at that.
Support Them & Tell Them to Get Professional Help
If the liar does admit their behavior, chances are you’re dealing with a compulsive liar and not the pathological type. If that’s the case, and they are someone close to you, like your partner or a family member, offer to help them get counseling for their condition.
Chances are, if you leave them to their own devices and find the help they need themselves, they’ll lie about it. They might tell you they’re going to therapy and making breakthroughs with their therapist, but in reality, they spend an hour at a coffee shop browsing the internet instead.
What Treatment Is Available for Pathological & Compulsive Liars?
If the liar agrees to therapy, support their decision and find a way to get involved without becoming controlling in the process. Help them find a therapist and drive them to the sessions so you know they’re attending and lying to you about it.
Therapy is the only way compulsive and pathological liars can break their habitual lying. However, the issue is that the compulsive or pathological liar might start lying to their therapist about making progress during the sessions. It could take years for them to experience a breakthrough, and some might never come to terms with their behavior.
Therapists might also recommend antipsychotic medications in the liar’s treatment. However, the liar might lie about taking them and not using the medication. It’s a challenging process to navigate, and the liar has to want to change their behavior if they want to see progress in therapists and eventually alter their behavior.