5 Things not to Do Before taking the Polygraph Exam


If your employer asks you to take a polygraph exam, you might feel nervous about it, but it’s not the end of the world. Provided you have the right preparation and are not guilty of any accusations, you have nothing to worry about. So, relax.

This post unpacks five things not to do before your polygraph exam.


Why Would I Have to Take a Polygraph Exam?

Your employer might ask you to take a polygraph exam for several reasons. If there’s a theft in the workplace, you’re accused of sexual harassment, or suspected of fraud, they have a right to request you to take a polygraph. However, you also have the right to deny their request.

You might have a problem like an anxiety disorder, and the thought of taking a polygraph exam places you on the verge of experiencing a panic attack. OR you might feel the employer is bullying you and wants to push you out of the organization.

Fortunately, “The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988” (EPPA) protects you from your employer’s misuse of polygraph policies in the workplace. The employer may not coerce or intimidate you into taking a polygraph; if they do, it violates the Act.


How the Polygraph Machine Works

The polygraph is a sophisticated device with over a century of development behind it. The first iterations of the lie detector machine involved analyzing physiological data like heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. Progression of the device saw it include skin electrical activity and sweat gland secretions included into its capabilities.

In the 1990s, the polygraph evolved from an electrical-mechanical/analog device into a system running on software controlled by algorithms and computer systems. These changes increased its accuracy from 60%-70% to 97% at detecting deception.


Understanding the “Fight-or-Flight” Response

The polygraph device assesses the physiological changes in the metrics mentioned previously. It determines the examinee’s execution of the “fight-or-flight” (FoF) response initiated by the sympathetic nervous system in response to what it considers a threat.

When we enter a situation we’re unfamiliar with and consider a threat to our safety or prosperity, the fear of the unknown has a powerful impact on the subconscious, the brain, and the nervous system. Our brain tells the sympathetic nervous system to prime the FoF in preparation to take action against these environmental stressors.

So, when the examiner asks the examinee a question where they feel they have to lie, the FoF activates, causing changes in the metrics detected by the polygraph instrumentation. The examiner notices these changes through charts on their laptop screen, allowing them to assess the examinee for potential deceptive behavior.


What the Examiner Looks for During the Exam

The examiner sits at a desk while they execute the lie detector test. The examinee faces to the side of them, with a video recorder capturing the events as they unfold. The examiner presents the examinee with around five questions relating to why the employer opted to implement the polygraph test.

The examiner won’t take their eyes off the screen looking at the data collected by the instrumentation, analyzed by the software, and presented in the visual matrix in front of them. If they notice one of their questions initiates the FoF response in the examinee, they’ll repeat the question.

If the examinee continues to present deceptive behavior, the examinee asks them why they think the device would present such conclusions. The examinee can choose to answer or refuse, as per the rights afforded to them by the EPPA and its legislation.

After concluding the exam, the polygraph examiner takes the data back to their office, where they analyze it in collaboration with the video recording to determine the exam result. They’ll inform the employer of their conclusions and keep the case file in hand.


Anxiety & Polygraph Results

There could be several reasons for the examinee’s activation of the FoF response during the lie detector test. Not all of them mean the examinee is behaving deceptively. For instance, if the person has an anxiety disorder or is feeling overly anxious and overthinking the exam, it may cause a false positive, indicating deceptive behavior.

However, most polygraph software is easy for the examiner to configure to determine the difference between FoF responses initiated by anxiety and those launched due to deceptive behavior. While anxiety can lead to a false positive, the skilled examiner can likely tell the difference and come to an accurate conclusion.


How Accurate Is the Polygraph Exam?

The reasons behind the implementation of the EPPA being written into law by President Ronal Reagan during the waning of your administration come from the outcry of complaints against polygraph policies. Many employees and suspects in criminal cases complained about the inaccuracies of the polygraph and the effect it had on their livelihood.

Employers would use polygraphs in an attempt to prevent the hiring of candidates they found undesirable. They would do the same when attempting to push an employee out of their organization. These unethical practices formed the reason for the foundation and implementation of the EPPA.

However, as mentioned previously, polygraph technology has come a long way since the launch of the EPPA in 1988. The introduction of software and computerized systems over the last three decades increased polygraph device accuracy substantially.

Today’s modern devices are considered 97% accurate by experts. As a result, it’s more important than ever for the examinee to prepare properly for the lie detector test.


5 Things Not to Do Before Taking a Polygraph Exam

We curated this list of five things you want to avoid doing before taking your polygraph exam. Preparation is key to successful performance on a polygraph test. These five tips are not designed to help you deceive the polygraph device. They help you prepare for what to expect on the day and behaviors to avoid before you step into the exam room.


#1 Research Countermeasures

It’s fine if you research information about the polygraph before your exam. Your examiner expects you to do that, and they prefer it if you do. Studying the lie detector test eliminates the fear of the unknown we discussed earlier. When you know more about the exam, you reduce your anxiety in the exam room.

You’re likely to still feel some nerves if you research the specifics of the test. However, it won’t be as bad as if you don’t read anything at all. However, the one thing you can’t do is research countermeasures for beating the polygraph.

A countermeasure describes a technique used to “beat” the polygraph. These countermeasures are methods to attempt to fool the examiner and the device into missing your deceptive answers. Actions like biting your tongue or curling your toes are examples of countermeasures.

The simple act of reading up more about them can get you in trouble with the examiner. If you decide to implement them during the exam, the examiner will likely pick this behavior up and ask you about it. As mentioned, the polygraph device is much more sensitive than the devices circa 1990 when these countermeasures were invented.


#2 Take Anxiety Medication

Taking Xanax before the lie detector test is a popular countermeasure many people assume will dampen the sympathetic nervous system’s ability to launch the FoF response. Xanax is a nervous system depressant designed to remove anxiety. However, it blunts the nervous system response so broadly that the examiner will pick up that you’re using it.

If they ask you if you’re taking Xanax or other drugs, like beta-blockers, to beat the test, you’ll have to lie about your drug use and potentially get flagged for deceptive behavior. OR you can admit to it, and you’ll fail the test for trying to use countermeasures.

The only time it’s okay to use Xanax or other drugs during the lie detector test is if you have a prescription for it.


#3 Break Your Routine

Sticking to your routine is the best advice for preparing for your polygraph exam. Go to bed the night before and wake up in the morning at the same time you normally do. Eat your breakfast and drink your coffee, and get in your workout.

Sticking to your routine prevents the subconscious from identifying abnormal behavior, indicating you’re feeling stressed. Breaking your habit tells your mind that there’s something wrong, and the brain and nervous system start to ramp up the sympathetic nervous system, priming the FoF response.


#4 Stay Up Late the Night Before

Getting a good night’s sleep before you take your polygraph exam is crucial. When we sleep, the brain clears the waste products built up in the neural pathways in the brain during the day. If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you’ll wake up feeling hazy, affecting every aspect of your physiology.

Some people find it hard to get to sleep the night before the exam. So, they decide to take their parents or friends’ sleeping medication, like Ambien, to help them get some rest. Or they might ingest a supplement like melatonin to help them fall asleep. This is a huge mistake.

These drugs and supplements might help you fall asleep, but you’ll find you feel groggy and unresponsive the following day. Many people also report irritability and bad mood symptoms after taking these drugs when they aren’t used to them.

Take a hot bath or shower an hour before you go to bed, and don’t look at your phone or the TV for the last hour before going to sleep. Download a guided breathing meditation from YouTube for free, and listen to it on your phone; you’ll find this meditation helps you get to sleep fast. You can use it again in the 30 minutes before you take the test the following day.


#5 Drink too much Caffeine

People that don’t get enough sleep the night before their exam usually feel tired in the morning. As a result, it’s common for them to use coffee, tea, or energy drinks to wake them up and help them feel normal. However, this is a huge mistake. Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant with an eight-hour half-life.

By drinking more than you normally would on any given morning, you over-reach the nervous system, creating a feeling of anxiety. We’ve already discussed the problems with feeling anxious in the exam room, so leave the caffeine alone and eat an apple instead.

Nutritional science shows that enzymes and nutrients are effective at increasing wakefulness and don’t have any stimulatory effect on the nervous system.


What Happens After Finishing the Polygraph Exam?

The examiner will thank you for your time and tell you to exit the exam room. Don’t try and ask the examiner for your result because they can’t tell you if you passed at that stage. The examiner returns to their office, where they review the test results alongside the recording of the session.

You can leave the exam room, and your employer will likely let you take a short break to recover your mind and body from the exam’s impact. However, don’t expect them to let you take the rest of the day off.

If you’re feeling stressed about the test, call a friend or colleague and talk out your emotions. You’ll find that you should feel better anywhere from ten to 30 minutes later. Some individuals don’t have any issues with recovering from the exam and get back to work immediately. The reaction depends on the individual.


When Do I Get the Results of the Lie Detector Test?

Your employer will inform you of the results of your lie detector test around three days after its completion. They do not show you the report or indicate the questions where you may have displayed deceptive behavior.

The employer may not disclose the exam results to anyone in the company other than your direct line manager, who’s responsible for overseeing your position at the company. They don’t keep the results from the polygraph examiner on file, and they may not disclose the test results to future employers if you decide to leave their organization.