Are you feeling anxious and nervous about your upcoming polygraph exam tomorrow? What’s going on with your body, and why do you feel this way? You’ve done nothing wrong, and you’re not the person responsible for stealing the inventory, so why should you feel panicked at the prospect of taking the lie detector test?
Relax; we all feel this way when we enter the unknown. It’s common for people to feel anxious when they don’t understand the processes they need to follow in life. It’s a natural reaction to feel fear in the face of something you don’t understand, and you shouldn’t worry about it.
Pour yourself a cup of hot tea, get comfortable, and let us walk you through why you feel nervous even though you have nothing to hide. This post unpacks everything you need to know about the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response, and how it pertains to your upcoming polygraph exam.
Understanding the Sympathetic Nervous System – The Biology of the Fight-or-Flight Response
The human body is a miraculous creation, and no one really knows how life works. Our brain separates us from animals, and the Central Nervous System (CNS), along with the brain, keeps us alive and shapes our experience.
The CNS comprises the peripheral nervous system (PNS) and the CNS. The PNS has two components, the Somatic Nervous System and the Autonomic Nervous system (ANS). We’re interested in the ANS for this post. The ANS comprises the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), and the Enteric nervous system.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to drill down to the ANS, and the SNS, in particular. The Sympathetic nervous system controls what is known as the “fight-or-flight” (FoF) response in the body. FoF is a highly evolved response initiated to help us escape danger.
Our ancestors evolved the FoF back in the early days of humanity when we were hunter-gathers living on the plains. During this time, we had no tools and limited weaponry. As a result, humans had predators, and we weren’t at the top of the food chain like we are today.
We developed the FoF to keep us out of the clutches of big cats who would turn us into their lunch. You’ve experienced the activation of the FoF many times in your life. Here’s how it works.
The Dynamics of the Fight-or-Flight Response in Action
Let’s say you’re a football player, and it’s the dying minutes of the fourth quarter. You’re on the game’s final play, and the team is close to scoring a touchdown. The quarterback informs you, the running back, that you’re getting the ball on this play.
He wants you to take the ball and cross into the end-zone for a touchdown to win the game. As a seasoned competitor in a bowl game, you understand it’s all on you to make it happen. The offense sets up for the play, and the quarterback takes the count to the snap.
When the snap is seconds away, you feel your senses heighten. Your pupils dilate, and your hair stands on the back of your neck. You notice your respiration rate increase, and your heart feels like it’s stuck in your throat as the pressure mounts. You feel the sweat pouring through the pad inside the helmet lining – it’s almost go time.
As the quarterback receives the snap and hands it over to you, you feel a surge of adrenaline rush through your body. You take the ball and start charging to ward the end zone at full speed. One, two, three attempted tackles, and you blast through them all like they were nothing – that’s the fight-or-flight response in action.
How the Fight-or-Flight Response Relates to Lying
So, how does the “fight-or-flight” (FoF) response indicate lying, and how does the polygraph device connect a deceptive answer to this state? Well, we only enter an FoF state when we’re under stress. When you learn to undergo a polygraph, your subconscious mind sees this as a threat to your well-being.
Even if you have nothing to hide, the fear of the unknown kicks in, and you start wondering what they’ll ask you in the test. Will they find out you were a drug user in your teens and had to go to rehab? Will they find out that you drink too much on the weekend?
Our subconscious mind starts making these connections, even when our conscious mind is focused on something else, and we’re thinking about something else. As a result, the SNS starts pushing us closer to priming the FoF response in preparation for the upcoming polygraph exam.
By the time you enter the polygraph exam room, your subconscious has fully engaged the SNS, and your FoF response is looking for the stimulus to activate it. When you sit in the chair, and the examiner hooks you up to the instrumentation, the FoF is primed and ready to come to life.
The FoF launches if the examiner asks you a question, and you have to lie to protect yourself from what you see as a threat. The sudden surge of adrenaline and cortisol rampages through your body, feeling like a shockwave.
Even if you manage to control your outward expression, you’ll notice its impact on your physiology as it engages your senses. While you might look fine on the outside, the polygraph instrumentation and software detect the changes in your physiology.
The lie detector device notices an elevation in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. It measures your skin’s electrical activity and sweat production, sending all this feedback to the control box, which presents it to the software and the examiner – all in a fraction of a second.
The examiner has specialized training and experience to look for these changes, identifying them as deception. They’ll notice these changes on their screen and start repeating the question, noting your response each time they ask.
The examiner can also determine the difference between genuine deception and feeling anxious. For instance, you might be the inventory manager and feel partial blame for an inventory theft, even though you weren’t party to it.
Your obligation to your job and dedication to your work makes you feel responsible for the theft, signaling the FoF when the examiner asks this question. If that’s the case, the examiner will question why you think the polygraph is detecting this reaction.
You can unpack your feelings, and the examiner will tell you to answer the question now that you have that off your chest. You’ll find that you don’t get the same shocked feeling when they ask the question this time, and you’ll pass the polygraph.
The Fight-or-Flight Response in Older Methods of Deception Detection
Two interesting examples of the fight-or-flight response stretch back centuries in time. For the first, we’ll travel back to the era of the Spartans. We all know these warriors and their penchant for battle from the movie “300.” The Spartans were famous for their fearless approach to war; after reading this, you’ll understand why.
When a new warrior came of age, and the elders wanted to test their courage, they would lead them to the edge of a tall cliff. The elder would stand there with their hand on the warrior’s chest. As they approached the cliff’s precipice, the elder would tell the warrior to look over the edge and ask them if they felt afraid.
If the warrior presented any form of hesitation in their reply, such as stuttering or a drop in vocal response, the elder would push them over the edge into the abyss. Fear was not tolerated. The lesson here is that fear produces a biological response, aka “fight-or-flight,” and we can’t avoid it.
Our second lesson comes from the era of the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s. The Inquisitors would use a questioning method similar to the polygraph examiner and lie detector machine. They figured out that by pressing their index and middle fingers against the side of the alleged heretics’ neck, they could monitor their pulse rate.
Furthermore, the Inquisitors noticed that if heretics lied during the questioning process, their pulse rate would increase. The fight-or-flight response elevated their heart rate, giving away their fear of being discovered as a heretic, landing them a death sentence.
The point of these two examples is to show you that there is no escaping the fight-or-flight response and that it’s impossible to control the sympathetic nervous system’s response to stimuli. These two examples would form the foundation of the information needed to understand the SNS and the fight-or-flight response and how it pertains to the development of the modern polygraph.
The Science Behind Modern Polygraph Technology and the Fight-or-Flight Response
The modern polygraph was a development of the processes first discovered by Cesare Lombroso and Vittorio Benussi in the late 1800s. The first clinical polygraph appeared around this time before being reinvented into the modern polygraph device by John Larson in the 1920s and refined by Leonard Keeler.
Larson and Keeler get the bulk of the credit for combining the techniques of the previous innovators in lie detection, bringing them together in a device measuring changes in respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Keeler was aware of the relationship between the fight-or-flight response and its effect on the body and its response to questions where a test subject had to lie about their response. Keeler’s changes included the changes in sweat gland activity and the skin’s electrical response under fight-or-flight in his polygraph design.
The result was an extremely effective device, with greater accuracy than Larson’s innovation. Keeler gets the credit as “The Father of the Modern Polygraph” due to his work on the polygraph and its impact on the law enforcement community.
The Reliability and Limitations of the Fight-or-Flight Response in Polygraph Testing
The Keeler polygraph was widely used by law enforcement and the private sector until the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, being an electrical and mechanical device, it was not as accurate as today’s modern polygraphs.
In fact, the Keeler polygraph had a 60% to 70% accuracy rate and was responsible for many wrongful convictions. However, the introduction of software and algorithms changed everything. The integration of software allowed a much more refined assessment of the fight-or-flight response, leading to vast improvements in accuracy.
Today’s modern polygraph is up to 97% accurate in its findings, and the examiners controlling the devices benefitted from the advancements, helping them refine questioning techniques to improve the process. The modern versions of the polygraph are so accurate they can even detect the use of countermeasures by the examinee. Simply put, there is no escaping the modern polygraph and its examiner. If you have something to hide, they’ll detect the deception you use to cover it up.
Is there Any Way to Beat the Lie Detector Test?
Plenty of internet forums discuss methods to deceive the lie detector test. For instance, using “countermeasures” in the test is a hot topic of debate in the industry. A countermeasure is an action the examinee takes before or during the test to try and confuse the polygraph device.
Some common countermeasures in the old era of polygraphs included curling your toes and biting your cheek when answering the examiner’s question. People believed the pain response or conscious thought interfered with the fight-or-flight response, allowing them to avoid deception detection.
More modern techniques involve taking drugs like Xanax or beat-blockers to interfere with the brain’s ability to launch the fight-or-flight state. Unfortunately for these individuals, the sophistication and accuracy of the modern polygraph can detect when the examinee deploys these countermeasures.
The only possible way of suppressing fight-or-flight and, in turn, beating the polygraph is if you’re a psychopath or pathological liar. These individuals have different brain structures and nervous system responses to lying.
They don’t activate the parts of the sympathetic nervous system that launch fight-or-flight when they lie. As a result, they have a good chance of beating the lie detector, but that’s not always the case. You’re at the mercy of your nervous system in most instances, and there’s no escaping your fight-or-flight state.