In a country with intensive training for the police, the polygraph sometimes decides everything – if a person does not pass it, he is denied work.
In September 2018, Kristin Ford, who accused US Supreme Court member Brett Cavanaugh of sexual harassment, announced the results of a polygraph test. He testified that the woman did not lie during the story about the violence of Cavanaugh. And although this information sounds loud in the headlines, in fact, the value of the lie detector is questionable.
The industry of using a polygraph is estimated at two billion dollars, and the USA remains the main financier of this sphere. For more than 50 years, the scientific community has criticized the use of the device, but this does not prevent government departments from relying on it when hiring ambulance staff, firefighters and police officers. Every year, more than 2.5 million lie-detector tests are conducted in the country, despite the fact that prices for a test sometimes reach $ 700. The details of the controversial practice sorted out the magazine Wired.
A tool for identifying allies of the USSR and gays
In 1915, an American psychologist, feminist theorist and future creator of Wonder Woman Williams Marston noticed an unusual phenomenon for his wife: when she was angry or turned on, her blood pressure increased. He suggested that, by asking various questions, he might, on the basis of cardiovascular activity, catch a spouse from lying or withholding.
When the United States entered the First World War, Marston proposed to develop for the Ministry of Defense spy detection devices. This allowed him to begin official studies, in which women often became subjects. A few years later, the inventor tried to check the forerunner of a polygraph in court, but the request was rejected because the scientific community did not recognize the device.
This only prompted Marston to continue the creation of a device capable of simultaneously recording the parameters of respiration, cardiovascular activity and electrical resistance of the skin. Marston is not considered the author of a modern polygraph, but it was thanks to his research that Californian policeman John Larson created the device.
Although Marston and Larson advocated the active use of the polygraph in investigations and trials, the scientific community considered it too biased. It insisted that changes in the life parameters of a person being questioned during a polygraph cannot be taken as evidence of the veracity or deceit of his words, since they can be caused not by the desire to lie, but by fear or stress.
Moreover, there are no objective rules for interpreting the results – polygraph experts interpret what they see in their own way, and it is rather difficult to catch them in error. One observer may take an increase in blood pressure for trying to lie, and the other does not pay attention to it. The risk of bias is so high that it is impossible to use the device in court, scientists believed. Many organizations ignored the statements, seeing a valuable and useful tool in the lie detector.
The pseudoscience of the polygraph allowed him to get into the police system: investigators used him to check, pressure and recruit suspects. At the sight of the device, many were nervous and “cracked”, believing that the device would still detect a lie. By the middle of the 20th century, the polygraph had penetrated into the US government departments, factories and banks. After the start of the Cold War and the McCarthy policy, intelligence agents used a lie detector to identify supporters of the USSR and homosexuals.
In 1988, after decades of clashes between the scientific community and supporters of an ambiguous instrument, the Act on the Protection of Employees from the Polygraph came into force . Federal law prohibited employers from using typography tests for recruitment, but with great reservations. Government departments at the federal and local levels have retained the ability to use a lie detector, as do private companies whose business specializes in the transportation of money (cash collectors) or pharmacology.
Since then, the doubts of the American community in the efficiency of the polygraph only intensified. All the new findings indicated that for several decades the US authorities and law enforcement services had falsely trusted the pseudo-scientific device. Some studies have indicated that in 85% of cases, based on the results of a polygraph, you can catch a person in a lie. However, this means that in such a case, it is necessary to ignore the probability of mistakenly blaming 15% of the subjects for lying.
From October 2011 to April 2017, the Washington State Police conducted 5,746 polygraph tests on potential recruits. One specialist caught less than 20% of candidates in a lie, while another refused 50% of the applicants. One examiner did not allow four people to suspect them of bestiality, while another disqualified on suspicion of the bestiality of every 20th candidate. The same examiner twice as often refused to applicants for a job in the police, as they allegedly lied about watching child porn.
Decisions about refusal of work were made on the basis of the results of the lie detector, even if all the previous physical and psychological tests of the candidate passed flawlessly. Further hearings on the alleged crimes were not held, the applicants were simply forced to leave. “The difference between the examiners’ decisions indicates that the test results cannot be considered absolutely reliable,” says John Allen, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona. If the test does not inspire confidence, its result cannot be taken into account, the specialist emphasizes.
Government departments have the right to request the results of a polygraph test from each other in order to verify a candidate. This means that if a person is refused a job based on test results in one place, it is highly likely that exactly the same will happen in another federal institution. Former CIA director Robert Woolsey considers a lie detector to be a harmful device, especially when it comes to mass screening of candidates. Sometimes the device is used in order to deliberately refuse work to an inconvenient applicant, the politician believes.
The popularity of the lie detector in the police leadership exists not only in Washington. In 2009, only 32% of candidates for the Houston Police Department passed a polygraph. In 2017, about 47% of applicants for service in the San Diego police successfully passed the controversial test. At the same time, in Austin, Dallas and Baltimore, the situation is completely different – there lie 60%, 77% and 91% of people who use a lie detector. This difference between cities and states indicates that polygraph tests resemble a lottery.
Few institutions store the results of a lie detector, so it is often difficult to determine whether a specialist acted objectively. William Iacono, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, suggested that organizations deliberately get rid of the data, fearing that they might confirm the bias of the test.
The examiner does not use an algorithm to determine the dignity of a person as a candidate for a job. Most likely, the decision of the examiner is mainly based on the human interaction between the parties.
In 2011, about 20% of respondents to the University of Virginia survey said they believe that people of a certain social group (for example, black people) fail a polygraph more often than others. In 1987, New York City Attorney General Peter Sherwood stated in the US Senate that the mood and feelings of the examiner can seriously influence his interpretation of the test results.
As an example, Sherwood cited statistics: dark-skinned candidates failed the lie detector test more often than the white race. Modern studies on the same topic confirm the connection between the candidate’s belonging to a certain social group and the failure of the polygraph.
In an effort to abandon the polygraph, replacing it with more modern counterparts, individual police departments resort to analyzing voice stress. In theory, this technology should detect a lie based on changes in the subject’s voice, but in fact is subject to the same doubts on the part of the scientific community as the lie detector.
Despite the skepticism around the device, the American Polygraph Association is working and accepting new members – their total number is 2,800. The main income of the organization is based on the sale of equipment to government customers and training – ten months of classes with a lie detector cost around six thousand dollars.
Often, the training is paid by police departments – they only recruit graduates of the American Association to work with a polygraph, although often the interpretation of the results of one specialist is completely different from the interpretation of another. “These are people ( polygraph specialists – ) who make human decisions, and with the time when each examiner has gained experience, they will have different results,” – commented the situation on Washington Police Lieutenant John Matagi.
Only entertainment can be compared with the interest of the American police departments to the lie detector. The polygraph is especially popular in television and Internet shows as a way to attract the viewer’s attention and create intrigue. Sometimes, illusory.
Among the police departments in the United States, there is more and more talk of the need to change the policy regarding the polygraph or abandon the device, but so far this is all at the level of discussion, rather than full-scale measures.
The representative of the Washington Police Department believes that the value of the device is manifested during the interview before checking the lie detector. On them, candidates often reveal personal information, not wanting to disclose it during the test. In other words, an expensive device can be used to put pressure on a candidate in order to find out information that he would otherwise have hidden.
From 2010 to 2017, the Phoenix Police (Arizona) conducted 3,711 polygraph tests for state candidates. Of these, during or after verification, 96 people admitted to committing crimes, including two cases of extortion and four cases of murder. According to Jay Stanley, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, the polygraph remains a convenient police tool to influence short-sighted people.