Polygraphs, or “lie detector” tests, are shown on television and in movies fairly regularly, whether it be on Bates Motel in which Norman wants to prove he didn’t murder his teacher, or on Dr. Phil when a husband wants his wife to know he wasn’t cheating.
It’s hard to imagine this tool being used in real situations, especially since the results are not admissible in many courts, including the Supreme Court. According to the APA, “There is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception”.
Raymond Nelson, the president of the American Polygraph Association as of 2015, released a research article with the title Scientific Basis for Polygraph Testing, and, according to NPR, “acknowledges the test isn’t perfect but says its accuracy rate is still above 80 percent”. Nelson says, “That’s still better than any other technology available today. It’s still better than trying to make human judgments based on non-instrumental methods for credibility assessment.”
Polygraph examinations are commonly referred to as a pseudoscience, and a former police officer, Peter Moskos states “You’re a fool if you go into a lie detector test thinking that telling the truth is good enough,” and this test has derailed many promising police careers. If you are like me, you may not have known until fairly recently that, although Congress banned private employers from using polygraphs on job applicants back in 1988, government employers are still allowed to use them. This leads me to my experience taking a polygraph examination.
I went through an incredibly long, detailed application process to work for a local police department as a victim advocate, which would give me more experience before graduate school. In other words, it would be an awesome learning experience. The application included sending the department your entire driving record, getting two different forms notarized, providing information about your entire life history and every human being you have ever come into contact with, and authorizing a full background check. I sent in all of this information (and so so much more), and I was obviously thrilled when I received a phone call to schedule an interview. Before this interview, I had to fill out a few more packets of information, including 28 pages called the “Applicant Polygraph Screening Booklet”. I was second guessing all of my answers. “Have I ever been fingerprinted by the police? I think they mean fingerprinted for a crime, but I had a police officer do my fingerprints for a job once a few years ago. Should I put that?” I drove to the police department for my interview, walked up the stairs, had to walk through a metal detector, take a stroll through the courtyard of the city buildings, give a man behind bullet proof glass my identification, had my photo taken for a visitor’s pass, and was told to sit and wait for someone to get me. I was sitting in the same seat many young people sat in, waiting to be processed. This was a seat a frightened woman once sat in, with a small child on her lap, counting down the seconds until someone walked through the door to discuss the assault she was a victim of. I sat there, across from two men in suits who discussed the many polygraph examinations they had taken at different police stations across North and South Carolina. I inferred from my eavesdropping that they were applying to be police officers. One of the men was walked through a door and down a hallway. Moments later, a kind woman walked in, asking “Amanda?”, spotted me, took my paperwork, and said she would be back soon. She walked me through a door, down a hallway, and into a conference room on the right. There were five people in this room. One was the confident woman that walked me in, two were women that seemingly wanted to be anywhere else, one was a man that seemed genuinely interested in my answers, and the last was a man who wrote down every single word I said without making eye contact once. They asked me five questions, which had already been written down and clearly assigned to the interviewers. They were either way above anything I would know/do as someone applying for an entry-level position, or they warranted a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. It was the shortest interview I had ever had, and it didn’t seem to go poorly, nor did it seem to go overwhelmingly well. Before I left, I was asked to have my fingerprints taken. I went to a small room with a woman that I would want to go have a beer with. She was funny and kind. She wished me good luck on my possible employment with the city, and I walked out the double doors, after trying the wrong door, unsure if I would be asked to come back.
Two days later, on a Friday morning, as I had just left my apartment to begin my drive toward North Carolina to meet my mom, I received a voicemail from an “inspector” with the city. She was calling to set up a polygraph! It was a sigh of relief. Maybe they found my bumbling just charming enough to move on to the next round. I was ecstatic. I pulled over and called her back about an hour later. We agreed to meet the next Wednesday morning at 8am, and she then proceeded to tell me to take medications as usual and get a good night of sleep. It sounded more like I would be going to get blood work taken with my physician. This made me fairly nervous. However, I kept telling myself that there was no point, because all I had to do now was be honest, and there was nothing I could control.
Wednesday morning I got in my car and drove downtown. I was told by a security officer, who refused to look up from his phone, that I couldn’t go through the metal detector because the building wasn’t open for another ten minutes. I stood there for a second, and he stated “you will have to wait outside”, again, without looking up from his Android. I was incredibly confused, because my appointment was in less than ten minutes now. I said “I just need to go to the police department.” His eyes darted up at me and said “Oh okay, go ahead.” I tried to go through the metal detector, and they refused me and told me to walk around it. [Sidebar: uhm. They are just letting people go wherever without having their bags or bodies checked? That’s not an uncomfortable thought at all…..]
I walked through the first set of double doors, through the courtyard, and through the next set of doors to the police department. Once again, I gave a woman my identification, she took a photo of me without warning, handed me my visitor’s pass, and I sat in an uncomfortable orange chair, waiting to meet Karen, the person who would be completing my examination. She finally came to get me, and it was already uncomfortable. She said “it’s at the end of the hall”, and I slowed down, because I would rather have her guide me, but she made me walk directly in front of her. I joked that it felt like she was walking me down a dark hallway where no one could hear my screams. She didn’t find it funny. We walked into her small office, she closed the door, asked me to turn of my phone, and I had to put my purse on her desk. She sat in a chair about three feet from me, with nothing between us but the situational awkwardness, condescension, and nervousness. This was nothing compared to what was to come.
Karen pulled out my paperwork, and began asking me fairly basic questions regarding my age, birthday, employment, and health. In the middle of these questions, she also told me very personal aspects of her life. I know when she retires, that she is a professor at a local Christian university, her father was in prison for the entirety of her childhood, and she was a daddy’s girl (the last two comments don’t sound like they go together, I know). She ranted about how the American Polygraph Association doesn’t really recognize the American Association of Police Polygraphists, and I would completely understand why in just a few hours.
She told me much more as the three hours went on, but she spoke to me about what I want to do in the future. I mentioned that I am interested in Criminal Psychology, and she started talking about how she would want to do that, but she worked in a jail and began her descent into condescension when she was implying I would not handle a job like that well. Criminal Psychologists do so much more than going to jails and prisons and talking to criminals. I said “I’m a lot stronger than you think I am.” She scoffed and said “no, honey, I’m sure you are, but…” and I stopped listening. I told her that, in addition, I would like to talk to murderers and understand how their minds work. She looked at me like I was the dumbest person she had ever encountered, looked up toward the ceiling and said “but they would probably be on death row, so why would they need to be rehabilitated?” I had to explain (again) that I had no interest in rehabilitation, but in understanding them better. She ignored me, and continued with the questions.
The questions, which I expected, as I had already given them my answers, began to get more personal and in-depth. I told her everything about my life, because I figured there was no reason to lie. I also haven’t done anything too bad, so I wasn’t concerned. I was so willing to tell everything, I even gave her the smallest details. “Did you ever have any encounters with the college police?” I told her when a creepy officer let me into my locked dorm room, and when they harassed me, because I couldn’t get my car to shift into reverse. She asked “but no tickets or anything?” I told her I had never received any citations, and she said “oh, then I don’t care about that.” She used this phrase many more times over the next few hours. She also talked about her headache, exhaustion, and how she couldn’t wait to retire from this job, which seemed pretty unprofessional to me. It seemed she didn’t care what I was telling her unless I murdered eight children, and she acted annoyed, so I stopped telling her small details. Once we were about done with the regular questions, she talked about how we all lie a little bit. She gave examples of how she acts or says she is fine when someone asks how she’s doing, even though she isn’t. I nodded, and she asked how honest I believe myself to be on a daily basis. I thought about it and said “hm… about 98%”. She looked shocked, said “wow, that’s pretty honest! Now, that being said, how honest have you been with me today?” Without skipping a beat, I said “98%”. She readjusted in her chair, and quite honestly, looked like she wanted to punch me in the face. “Amanda, I need you to be 100% honest with me. Where is the other 2%?” I said “Oh. Well, you asked me earlier how I was doing, and I said I was doing well, which wasn’t true. You also asked if I was nervous, and I said ‘only a little’, which was a lie.” She definitely wanted to punch me. And she said “Amanda, those aren’t lies. Nervousness isn’t a lie. What have you lied about?” She had just given me examples, exactly like the ones I gave her, of lies, and now she says they aren’t lies? What is happening here?
I started to feel more uneasy, with this inspector specifically, and I moved over to another seat, and she began to hook me up to the machine that may or may not determine my immediate future. She put a cord around my chest, wrapped the blood pressure cup around my arm, put a clip on my finger, warning me not to move my finger at all as it is incredibly sensitive to any motion, and gave me a test to see if I would lie about something as simple as what number was in front of me. While we were doing this test, some male police officers were outside the door being loud, and she opened the door and yelled at them. It was clear that no one cared what she had to say, because the noise continued. The polygraph itself only consisted of about 6 questions and 3 baseline questions thrown in the middle. She said she would take three charts, so she would ask these questions at three separate times.
We started the test. I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest. We did the first chart, and I heard her get up behind me, open her mini fridge, close it, and walk toward me. She glared at me, while she opened a water bottle and handed it to me. She took a sip from her own bottle and stared me down while she was drinking from it. This was like something from a movie. I didn’t know what was going on, so I hesitantly asked “…what?” Her response? “I don’t know. You tell me.” WHAT?! AM I BEING PUNK’D RIGHT NOW?! She began saying that I didn’t tell her something, and I know exactly what it is. My jaw dropped to the floor, I was searching my brain for anything that I could have left out. She even said “I can tell in your eyes that there is something you aren’t telling me.” She finally told me that I was failing on the following questions: “Are you involved in any illegal drug activity?”, “Did you lie on any of the questions?”, and “Have you committed any major crimes?” To clarify, “major crimes” includes exactly what you think: murder, grand larceny, kidnapping, sexual assault, etc. I was even more shocked. I was obviously freaking out. I started saying things like “I know people that do drugs”, “I know people who have committed major crimes, but I told you about that”, and even “I drank a lot in college”. She said things like “Well, that’s not about you, so it doesn’t matter” and “Maybe you just need to clear your conscience”. She stated that she could sit there all day, while I was pleading my innocence. One of my biggest fears in life is being falsely accused of a crime, and that is exactly what this felt like. She finally decided to continue on with the second chart.
We started the second chart, and I was livid. I was shaking, my voice deepened, and I was just imagining myself punching this woman. At one point, she said I wasn’t breathing normally. In fact, she said I was breathing too slowly and deeply. (Sidebar: I’ve always been a person who breathes very deeply. I talked to my doctor about it in high school, and they said it is completely normal, and after being trained in singing for most of my life, it is expected.) So, I tried changing my breathing, which I don’t think I should have been asked to do in the first place, and then she yelled “You need to breathe! You aren’t breathing!” I was startled and, admittedly, snapped back, “yes I am!” She shushed me and continued with the test, while I rolled my eyes harder than ever before. We finished this chart, she asked if I was ready for the next one, and I sharply said “yes”. We got through the next one without the histrionics, and I was ready to get out of there.
Karen removed all of the instruments, and asked me to sit back down in the chair I was in at the beginning of our meeting. She decided to keep interrogating me, and I was over it. Then, she showed me some of the charts, and decided it was completely professional for her to mimick me snapping that I was breathing during the chart. I told her basically the same things over and over and over again. It was infuriating. The inspector also let me know that now there were only two that I failed on. I’m not sure how that works. She finally let me leave and I couldn’t get out fast enough. She told me to turn in my paper/sticker visitor’s pass, but I decided not to. Instead, I pushed one of the doors, and it wouldn’t open. Only one door, on the very left, out of six doors, actually opened from the inside or the outside. Great. I just wanted to sprint out of here, but I had to spend two minutes trying to figure out which goddamn door to open. I finally got to my car, and I just wanted to scream. I drove home, waiting for Mychael to get home from work for lunch, and as soon as I saw him, I started crying. I have no idea what came over me, but it was intense.
For someone who has never been in trouble, come into contact with police, and has intense anxiety, this was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was told to breathe a certain way, made fun of, and called a liar. It seemed Karen had made up her mind about me early on, and really just wanted to have a therapy session, because she told me way too much about her feelings. All in all, professionalism would have completely turned this experience around.
Let me know if you have ever taken a polygraph, and if your experience were completely different or exactly the same!
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