The myth of a polygraph as a “lie detector” is well evidenced in public discourse and is the subject of great debate, both well-formed and ill-formed for many decades. Monographs such as Melissa Littlefield’s (2011) The Lying Brain: Lie Detection in Science and Science Fiction offers detailed insight into the history of the polygraph from a multi-disciplinary perspective, taking into account the very evolution of the disciplines of psychology, philosophy, and science itself. The myth that the polygraph as lie detector is a complicated history replete with large names in the fields of medicine, philosophy, psychology, law, justice, government, and intelligence communities.
The myth contains partial truths, in that scientists of these fields have not only explored physiology, but also developed tools in measuring physiology, thereby applying these in the development of physiological measures to correlate with cognition and emotion. For example, the blood pressure cuff, which is so common today, has shared history with the continued maturation of the polygraph along with other physiologically measuring devices. It is therefore valuable to approach the lie detector myth first from a historical perspective so as to ground the myth in prevailing social psychology, as this myth, is less a myth, and more of a stereotype covering a large variety of phenomenon associated with that which drives one to arrive at behaviors perceived as deception and stereotyped as lying.
The nature of the polygraph with respect to matters of national security, very much operating on the Thomas Theorem, stated poignantly, “if men describe situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas, 1928, p. 572). A section on national security is included, as no analysis of this myth would be complete without its consideration, as it is one of the largest supporters, explicitly so, of polygraph programs worldwide.
While controversy continues regarding the polygraph as lie detector, it is arguable that the genesis of the very stereotype of “lie detector” marshals a public’s own preconscious perceptions in service to administrations of what now is known as the control (alternatively, comparison) question test (CQT). Without a preconceived notion (“myth”) that the CQT can detect lies, the test would lack utility—exactly what a CQT pre-test aims to accomplish. It is this author’s hypothesis that the pre-test is not only in the room of an examiner, but extended to the field of public opinion, itself.
Origins of Myth
Early Measures & Correlations
Scientists have been pursuing correlations of physiological measures, emotions, and cognitions for the past 160 years. In 1858 Étienne-Jules Marey recorded “bodily changes as responses to uncomfortable stressors, including nausea and sharp noises” (Marsh, 2019). In the 1890’s, Casare Lombroso created a glove that monitored the blood pressures of suspects in interrogations (Marsh, 2019). This glove used what is known as a plethysmograph; Lombroso reasoned that a drop in blood volume was positively correlated to deceit (Littlefield, 2011, p. 8). Indicative of future work in physiological measures, Vittorio Benussi in 1914 employed pneumography in seeking the correlation of respiration and deceit (Littlefield, 2011, p.8). Yet things would not take off until a student of Wilhelm Wundt emigrated to the United States (Littlefield, 2011, p. 18).
Münsterberg’s Credibility & Applications
Hugo Münsterberg, at the invitation of William James, began directing Harvard’s psychology laboratory in 1892 (Littlefield, 2011, p. 20), where he later researched deception between 1913-1925 (Littlefield, 2011, p. 8). Münsterberg used an amalgamation of devices, to measure “feelings” (Marsh, 2019). One of Münsterberg’s devices, a sphygmomanometer, was used in correlating blood pressure with “deceptive consciousness” (Littlefield, 2011, p. 8; Marston, 1917, p. 153; Harrisburg Telegraph, 1915). Münsterberg saw it fit to use the machine in criminal law (Marsh, 2019). Münsterberg also composed numerous essays regarding deception, which inspired two journalists to author a series of “psychologist detective” stories in Hampton’s Magazine (1909 & 1910), later published collectively as The Achievements of Luther Trant (MacHarg & Balmer, 1910). These stories portrayed Trant employing “various instruments for the detection of deception” (Littlefield, 2011, p. 19) and essentially marketed lie detection in the field of public opinion (Littlefield, 2011, p. 19).
Münsterberg’s credentials and pedigree lent weight to his work, where his “primary goal was the application of psychology to other fields” such as “inspecting the minds of criminal suspects and courtroom witnesses by measuring changes in their body’s physiology” (Littlefield, p. 2011). Rather than unitary measures of earlier scientists, he used a combination of devices measuring blood pressure, respiration, muscle contraction, volume of blood in limbs, and reaction times (Littlefield, 2011, p. 21). Münsterberg himself writes of one of his devices that it is a “magnifying-glass for the most subtle mental mechanism, and by it the secrets of the criminal mind may be unveiled” (Münsterberg, 1908, 108). Münsterberg’s own characterization in writings and that of the media had begun crystallizing the concept of the lie detector as applied to his and earlier works (Littlefield, 2011, p. 22-23).
Unattributed syndicated columns appeared in numerous newspaper articles in the early 1920’s featuring the benefits, workings, and accuracies of so-called lie detectors (Essex County Herald, 1921; Omaha Daily Bee, 1921; Capital Journal, 1921a, Capital Journal, 1921b; The Sun, 1919). One journalist forecast future concern nearly presciently, “if use of that lie-detector ever becomes universal, it will ruin the peace of mind of every married man” (Capital Journal, 1921a). The work quickly inspired attempts at creating new devices such as a mechanical “love detector” (Evening Public Ledger, 1921). It is clear that media, especially 1919 forward, continued the crystallization of a stereotype for various machines used to explore correlations of physiological measures of deception as a lie detector, and there was no shortage of correction by inventors seeking a market.
Early Accuracy Statistics
The inventor of the systolic blood pressure cuff, William Moulton Marston, who worked with Münsterberg, attempted to use the cuff to correlate “vital signs and emotions” (Marsh, 2019). In one of the first reports of accuracy, Marston, assisted by his wife, reported a 96% accuracy rate in “detecting liars” (Marsh, 2019). Marston later tried to correct the myth; however, it is very difficult to dislodge public opinion once crystallized (see Edward Burnays):
The field kept growing, and with the advent of World War I, Robert Mearns Yerkes, a psychologist from Harvard, developed intelligence tests and decided to test Marston’s work. It was here where doubts took on a scientific character, testing the results of Marston’s later claims of 100% accuracy (Marsh, 2019). This is the first evidence of the National Research Council (NRC) getting involved in the earlier work of assessing “lie detectors”, a key takeaway of critics was that interpretation “was more art than science” (Marsh, 2019). Marston’s life is too big and controversial to capture in this paper alone. Marston’s obituary credits him with “the exoneration of a number of persons who, because of strong circumstantial evidence, would otherwise have been convicted of murder” (Nome Nugget, 1947).
The Polygraph Instrument
The origins of the polygraph instrument rests in the hands of John Augustus Larson, who had been a “rookie cop” armed with a Ph.D. in physiology (Marsh, 2019). He worked to improve Marston’s published works on the detection of deception (Marston, 1921) and developed early versions of tests utilizing yes/no questions (Marsh, 2019). Larson continued development and application in the department with success, while his police chief worked to market the polygraph’s success though the legal system had been less enthusiastic (Marsh, 2019).
The Frye Test
While the polygraph had been used by law enforcement and used in trials, criticism continued. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the polygraph was not “common knowledge” (Marsh, 2019; Lepore, 2015; Marshall, 1974). In fact, subsequent cases in court conclude that “polygraph validity remains unsettled, polygraph present courts with substantial evidentiary challenges” (Iacono & Ben-Shakhar, 2019, p. 87). The main part of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion that impacted polygraph and all scientific testimonies then forward, known as the “Frye test” (Lepore, 2015, p. 1140) is critical in the assessment of the mythic polygraph, absent supporting theoretical principles, with respect to application in justice:
The Frye case is worthy of psychological inquiry, and it is nearly worthy of a motion picture. Marston, as a lie detector inventor, himself was eventually arrested for fraud by federal agents, the headline reading “Marston, Lie Meter Inventor, Arrested” (Lepore, 2015, p. 1142-1144; Washington Post, 1923).
Modern CQT Polygraph
The modern polygraph in U.S. domestic public opinion refers to both the machine used to detect physiological measures and the CQT, as opposed to the CIT, which had developed separately and is used Japan. The CQT is administered with a combination of “skin conductance responses (SCR), skin resistance responses (SRR), respiratory suppression, [and] relative arterial blood pressure” (Gamer, Rill, Vossel, Gödert, 2006, p. 77). The test consists of three phases, 1) the pre-test which collects background information and relevant facts, and develops relevant and irrelevant questions, 2) the test phase in which questions are asked while monitoring physiological data, and the post-test interrogation phase in which an examinee is informed of results and invited to confess deception if the test indicated deception (Iocona & Ben-Shakhar, 2019, p. 87). It shall be noted that an examiner must impress upon an examinee in pre-test that the test can detect deceit (lying) (p. 96). Any scientist is challenged to summarize this paragraph into 4-5 words that communicates clearly what this test does to a median representation of the public population.
A Myth of Accuracy
The intersection of beliefs regarding the myth of the “lie detector” are found between nearly all segments of society and focus on nearly one measure to answer the obvious question, “but is it accurate?”. In order to compress these beliefs into a shorter paper, major proponents of the myth, and associated accuracies supporting or non-supporting, will be considered. As the belief of the U.S. judicial system has been presented with the Frye case, its precedent which still continues in application in the judicial today, will be omitted from further review. The largest proponent of the polygraph myth rests in tremendous efforts in a costly basic social process of accuracy validation. Simultaneously, though less exciting, privately work in a separate concealed information test (CIT) had been advancing theories and experimentation correlating emotion and cognition with physiological measures as related to deceit (Verschuere & Ben-Shakhar, 2011). Since U.S. public opinion crystallized around the polygraph with respect to the predecessor and application of the CQT, this will remain the focus of the remainder of this paper.
American Polygraph Association. The American Polygraph Associations claims 2,800 professionals trained in polygraph administration around the world along with the administering of hundreds of thousands of exams each year (American Polygraph Association, 2015). Despite operating an “optically” scientific journal, it must be made clear that the American Polygraph Association’s journal Polygraph, “is not currently edited by a scientist, nor has it been in the past; it is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal” (Iacono & Ben-Shakhar, 2019, p. 89).
There is some trepidation in the fact that Iacono & Ben-Shakhar’s statement about lack of peer review in Polygraph sounds elitist and reminiscent of a political-public-relations maneuver questioning the association’s credibility, yet it is more a statement casting doubt on collaborative scientific methodology, in lacking peer-review, which is a hallmark of collective human scientific inquiry.
The American Polygraph Association cites “accuracy rates exceeding 90 percent” and is careful in the wording through the use of constraints, “through strict adherence to training and education standards” (American Polygraph Association, 2015). Polygraph examiners from the association are historically associated with the CQT which is used in the North America, Israel, and elsewhere (Iacono & Ben-Shakhar, 2019, p. 86) rather than the concealed information test (CIT) used in Japan.
Intelligence Community. CIA (1987) maintained an Agency Polygraph Instrumentation Working Group (PIWG) that met monthly through the 1980’s to develop and advance its polygraph program (p. 1). CIA had been well aware of issues with validity, and made this awareness transparent, yet argued considerably for its continuance even in the midst of public scrutiny (Marcus, 1985; Kihss, 1976; Burkey, 1965) and scientific discourse questioning its validity. CIA had and continues to have a vested interest in polygraph programs as matter of national security. Four main areas were part of program concerns: instrumentation, countermeasures, validity, and methodology (pp. 1-2).
In the polygraph’s defense, George H.W. Bush, former director of CIA (1976-1977) sent letters to the Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary (James O. Eastland) and the Chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary (Peter W. Rodino) requesting exemption for CIA and NSA within a proposed bill baring polygraph by Federal agencies (Bush, n.d.). Bush states that the ban would “seriously impair the ability of the Director of Central Intelligence to fulfill his statutory charge to ‘protect intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure’ (50 U.S.C 403).” (Bush, n.d.)
R. L. Welch (1981), then serving as the Navy’s member on the Director of Central Intelligence Security Committee, cites in a memo:
Welch continues to outline “two main forces” favorable to the polygraph, 1) the fact that background investigations were “diluted in terms of scope and meaningful content”, and 2) that “those now using the polygraph and who naturally serve as proponents of the technique (p. 1). Welch cites “accuracy ratings of 90 to 95 percent” (p. 1). Of particular interest in Welch’s memo is the clear communication of matters of national security vs. suitability:
The next highlight of Welch’s memo, germane to the myth of the employment of CQT polygraphs, is clear awareness of the controversy and balancing act regarding its utility:
It would be greatly unfair to characterize peoples in charge of national security screenings as flouting science and ethics, as it has been seen that even peoples here maintain programs for research and enhancements, as well as ethical considerations:
It is interesting to note that pouring through declassified letters, memos, bulletins, and reports on the subject of the polygraph, within these are repeated citations of accuracy ratings of 85% to 95%. Yet often, citations are omitted as to the source and studies reporting said statistics. That said, in light of the fact of employment in national security positions, reasonable trust of loyalty rather than suitability is maintained in numerous written testimonies as to the defense and utility of the polygraph.
Regarding statistical analysis, one is left wondering if the accuracy ratings are remnants of studies embraced by the American Polygraph Association’s later meta-analysis of earlier studies which cited a 90% accuracy (American Polygraph Association, 2011). Regardless of the accuracy, it is important to note that national security throws a wide blanket across risk, whether accurate or inaccurate, as one could reasonably select the next candidate to consider for hire or replacement rather than one who might present a deceit condition on a CQT test. This would be no different from a credit rating, whether accurate or inaccurate, as one could reasonably select the next applicant to consider for a loan rather than one who might present a risk condition on risk scoring models. There is no doubt that U.S. Federal agencies carry on polygraph programs, well-funded, and conduct private research. “The polygraph field is one of those rare situations where the practice has outpaced the research,” the Department of Defense (1983) states in Accuracy and Utility of Polygraph Testing. Would that a peer-reviewed scientific community could have access to secure research, perhaps it could allay or amplify concerns, and quite possibly share intimate knowledge and unknown theories, so applied, though that is a matter subject to declassification.
Government Investigations. The National Research Council (NRC) has conducted investigations regarding the polygraph (NRC, 2003), and have claimed questions of validity with regard to accuracy by proponents of its utilization (namely CQT). In their own reviews, they have noted validity concerns with respect to accuracy statistics, “we believe that estimates of polygraph accuracy from existing research overestimate accuracy in actual practice, even for specific incident investigations” (p. 214). Even more pointed, “the evidence does not allow any precise quantitative estimate of polygraph accuracy or provide confidence that accuracy is stable across personality types, sociodemographic groups, psychological and medical conditions, examiner and examinee expectancies, or ways of administering the test and selecting questions” (p. 214).
Regarding the polygraph in matters of “deterring security violations”, the NRC does not dismiss it entirely (NRC, 2003, p. 6). NRC reflects one of the core requirements of a polygraph professional in administering a polygraph wherein the pre-test phase (before the actual machine is hooked up and CQT’s test questions are administered) is used to establish a reasonable belief in the examinee that the polygraph can truly detect lying, NRC states, “such utility derives from beliefs about the procedure’s validity, which are distinct from actual validity or accuracy” (p. 6).
Scientific Community. Iacono & Ben-Shakhar have both been active researchers advancing theories related to the CIT which is a different measure of deceit than the CQT. Iacono & Ben-Shakhar took on the task of reassessing both NRC’s report (2003), and the American Polygraph Association’s (2011) meta-analysis. In their investigation, several issues had been found: 1) 76% of meta-analysis used non-peer reviewed studies (Iacono & Ben-Shakhar, 2019, p. 89), 2) 47% used papers with one author, Raymond Nelson (p. 89), and 3) the utilization of a “fatally flawed field study research design that is common to CQT validity studies, including all of those relied upon in the meta-analysis” (p. 89). The fatal design is summarized thus:
Iacono & Ben-Shakhar (2019) cite multiple studies post NRC’s report and find conflicting evidence with numerous methodological errors. The follow up study cites contamination by confirmation bias (p. 90-91). A clever field study by Ginton (2013) utilized opposing CQT’s utilizing multiple suspects, where only one suspect could be telling the truth (concordant pairs) and calculated a 65% accuracy rating, better than chance, but not near 90% of earlier studies.
Scientific Position. As a matter of communicating the complexity of what the polygraph encompasses, evidence is offered as to the fact that there is no machine capable of determining lying. Lewis & Cuppari’s (2009) review of the polygraph and its history opens with “unfortunately there is no instrument that measures lying… psychology might suggest that it is up to the polygraph examiner to design a test that a truthful person would ‘pass’” (p. 86). Vrij et al. (2000) states “David Raskin and Gunter Könken—leading experts in lie detection via physiological responses and via what is said, respectively—both believe that detecting deception via nonverbal behavioral cues is a precarious exercise on which people cannot rely” (Vrij, Edward, Roberts, & Bull, 2000, p. 240; Köhnken, 1997, personal communication; Raskin, 1996, personal communication; personal). Not to be taken out of context, Rasking and Köhnken are referred to as “leading experts in lie detection”, are they reliable?
Mock-Juror Studies. Myers, Latter, & Abdollahi-Arena (2006) surveyed 411 participants in transit stations in California in a mock-trial “juror decision making” experiment (p. 512). The case presented a second-degree sexual assault case which represents testimonial issues of credibility within which polygraph experts are invited to testimony (p. 513). Meyers et al. informed participants that polygraph testing is ~85% accurate (p. 513), using Iaocono & Lykken’s own studies (1997). Those surveyed “do not regard the polygraph test as infallible”, and after hearing the 85% accuracy rating, surveys reported lower estimates of accuracy (Myers, Latter, & Abdollahi-Arena, 2006, p. 518). All participants in passed-polygraph and failed-polygraph conditions of the test reported that polygraph testing is “between 62 and 68% accurate” (p. 518).
Myers et al.’s report of public perceptions of accuracy is significantly lower than the American Polygraph Association’s, DOD’s, and CIA’s non-peer reviewed statistics citing 90% accuracy (with proper training) yet in line with Ginton (2013) and Lykken (1979). Also interestingly, Myers et al. found no age interaction (p. 516). 4.2% determined that the polygraph could be used solely to determine outcomes, 62.5% believed in its diagnostic use, 25.5% questions its usefulness, and 7.8% found no usefulness as a mock juror (p. 517). 92% found the polygraph less trustworthy than any other evidence (p. 518). Interestingly, experts overestimated accuracy at about 85% compared to the 62-68% accuracy estimated by the public (non-experts) (p. 518). Unfortunately, this study is not generalizable, due to its hyper-specificity in the geographic region of California.
Myer et al.’s study demonstrates that a public is more cognitively congruent with statistical accuracy than experts, demonstrating serendipitous understanding by the public with regard to the accuracy and utility of the polygraph. Regardless of statistical accuracy, one could lose sight of what’s operating behind the scenes of the phenomena of the polygraph and paired CQT as a tool in the practice of determining not lying specifically, but possible flags of behaviors presenting as a schema of deception.
Discrimination. The polygraph also presented and continues to present unique cultural challenges and implications regarding discrimination and representation, as warned about by Welch; lifestyles questions used in polygraph administration could be used in nefarious ways. With respect to the employment of polygraphs in national security environments, Federal government surveys of security granting staff conducted in the 1990’s confirmed that “those who think homosexuality is wrong… would limit civil liberties for gay people are also more likely to support obstacles to their access to security clearances” (Lewis, 2001, p. 554).
Today, polygraphs generally are administered in two ways, one is the CQT and the other is the CIT. Given the history aforementioned, along with institutional and public opinions, it is reasonably understood how a stereotype of “lie detector” had been engendered by both earlier excitement of physiologists and psychologists where meaning outpaced measure, but also of journalists in search of bylines and headlines; short pithy expressions that capture and distill complex phenomena into simple stereotypes for more efficient communication. This is the crystallization of opinion. Despite the work of researchers, governments, institutions, experts, and others, “lie detector” stuck. However, as the NRC deftly states: there is utility in the belief that the polygraph detects lying; the belief increases physiological responses. As Iacona & Ben-Shakhir state, “examinees must be deceived by the examiner and be led to believe that lying to the examiner’s chosen probable lie questions leads to a failed outcome” (Iacona & Ben-Shakhir, 2019, p. 96).
It is therefore of utmost utility for the public to believe that that the “lie detector” detects lies, although the examiners, professionals, and scientists know that it does not. This seems no different than behaviorist psychological punitive reinforcement contingencies (Skinner, 1971, p. 69) of a parent telling a child, “I’ve got eyes in the back of my head” to prevent misbehavior, eerily similar of a polygraph professional saying, “if you lie, we’ll detect it” in a pre-test stage. It is therefore put forward that an alternate hypothesis is simply put: the myth is the cover under which polygraphy protects, detects, and advances. While arguments over the myth and accuracy claimed the majority of discussion over the polygraph and accuracy in detecting lies, parallel advancements were in private and peer-reviewed journals sharing and replicating theoretical developments. Advancements and ground-breaking work regarding theories relating physiology, emotion, and cognition has accompanied peer-review work on development of the Guilty Knowledge Test (GKT), Guilty Action Test (GAT), and the subsequent development of CIT. As of this article, more possibly frightening technological innovations claim highly verifiable accuracy in detecting deceit (see Bruer et al.’s work on detecting deceit in children’s faces [Bruer, Zanette, Ding, Lyon, Lee, 2020]).
A strong word of caution: it is entirely possible, as a secondary alternative hypothesis that the peer-review public doesn’t have insight into matters of national security programs and relevant data. The truth is that CIA, DOD, NSA, and affiliated institutions have had well-funded practicing polygraph programs with large sample sizes for many decades and has most likely collected troves of data along with highly classified work in advancing theories, applications, validating procedures, and counter-measures that are inaccessible to the general public, and outside of public institutions practicing peer-reviewed science. If the author was running a polygraph program guarding national security, the theory, technology, and data would be kept secret too.
In summary, it is of utmost futility to talk of existence or non-existence of a lie detector, either human, or machine, and it is this talk that, most likely offers obfuscation of real work, that is the work of science and intelligence, whether private or public. The energy and resources fueling such arguments and weapons of said arguments could be put to better use advancing an intelligent being’s understanding of psychophysiological phenomena and psychophysiological measures. Within such measures, somehow cognition and emotion of evolution produces and matures working theories that are better able to predict, moderate, and help constructive or destructive behaviors in the maintenance and growth of happiness of limitless beings by minimizing and hopefully reversing harmful effects in these very pursuits, on surrounding ecologies. Perhaps now, more than ever, the polygraph continues its evolution at the hands of scientists both public, and private, in pursuit of not a nation’s or people’s security, but life’s security, foreign and domestic.
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