Posted by: drew | May 1, 2006

Can We Trust Polygraphs?


Ex-CIA man Larry Johnson writes about it on No Quarter.

George W. Maschke of wrote:

The key problem with the polygraph is that there is no physiological response uniquely associated with deception. The "test" is not grounded in the scientific method, as it lacks both standardization and "control" within the scientific meaning of the word. As my friend, John J. Furedy, a professor emeritus of psychology, has noted , the polygraph "is virtually useless for differentiating the anxious-but-innocent person from the anxious-and-guilty one."

This sums it up nicely. Once upon a time I decided to try and join the FBI to lend my technical skills to their outdated and floundering IT infrastructure and applications. Joining the FBI would mean a totally different lifestyle. Lower pay, longer hours, potentially being stationed in east bumble-*&#@ for the first few years, and being relocated across the country repeatedly.

Compare this to working as a software engineer in the private sector, making more money, choosing our location, stock options, etc. I chose to pursue the former career path for the same reason anyone decides to become an agent or join the military: my sense of duty.

Before I go on, I would like to say that while this subject still brings up frustration for me, I've moved on and am extremely happy with how my career has progressed. Looking back at the possible lines of reality that my life has and could have taken, I am content with how things have turned out.

Go below to read more of my adventure with the polygraph.

I began the arduous process of applying to the FBI. I dredged the depths of my memory and contacts to fill out the enormous application package, which took weeks to complete.

I began getting back into shape with running, pushups, situps, etc so that I would be back in the shape I was in in highschool and college. I waited months to get a response. In the meantime I continued to train mentally and physically. I didn't remember much about geometry, algebra, and calculus so I had to buy books and refresh my non-mathematically inclined memory.

When I finally heard that I'd make it to the next, I then traveled hundreds of miles to take the written exam and be interviewed by a panel of agents. I then waited again to be invited to take the polygraph exam. That was the last step before the physical tests, and near the end of the admission process. It was an interesting, drawn out, nerve-wracking, and sometimes grueling experience.

When I learned I'd be taking the polygraph, I did, as I always do, some research on the subject. What I found was not encouraging. There's a reason that only certain govt. agencies are allowed to use this device during the employment process. There's also a reason why polygraph results are not admissible in court.

More so in those days than now, I was prone to anxiety and nerves. The thought of a polygraph made me very nervous. I'm the type that gets nervous walking out of a store with those "thief detectors" by the exit. Maybe you can relate: You know, you walk through those things and have a moment of panic that maybe you inadvertently slipped something into your pocket…

Take this feeling and multiply it by about a million when it comes to the polygraph. You're strapped in to this device with electrodes, things on your fingers, feet, etc. That alone will freak you out. Even if you have nothing to hide, you still get that feeling that you might accidentally tell a lie, remember something wrong, get nervous for no reason, etc. If you are at all the nervous type, the polygraph is NOT a good time.

So anyway, I won't go into the details of the test, but I was rather nervous and was having to perform relaxation breathing techniques throughout the process. After we were done, he went to analyze the results, and then came back in. He told me that he was concerned about my reaction to one of the questions.

They allowed me to write an explanation as to why my response was…whatever it was (it's all black magic because only they can analyze the responses.). Given how nervous I was the entire time, I'm not sure how my reaction to that question looked different from my other answers.

I later got a letter saying they declined to hire me. I was actually really stunned. I know myself, my family and friends know me, and every single one of them would say that I was prime material for the Bureau. I'd always been the cautious type, avoiding trouble and situations that could mean trouble. My record was spotless.

At the time, it was incredibly frustrating, but I quickly realized that if they were turning away programmers with backgrounds like mine because of the polygraph, it's no wonder their IT situation was so dire. It was also obvious why the rest of the Bureau was in the shape it was in.

I didn't bother trying to take the test again. I realized that if they were so dependent upon this unscientific tool that they would turn away someone like me, maybe I shouldn't be a part of the organization. From that point I decided to try a different route to serve my country and apply my skills.

Now I'm in DC working on national preparedness, defense, and response project that are directly improving our country's capabilities to prevent and respond to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. I am confident that I'm having a more direct impact on these things outside of the FBI than I ever could have inside of it.

I can only hope that since that time, they've improved somewhat. I hope that they do away with the polygraph at some point too.

Perhaps at some point such imprecise and unscientific tools will be rightly regarded as causing more harm than good.

Especially if this is a tool relied upon during the hiring or firing process. I am a perfect case in point.

This tool is a wonderful way for the FBI, amongst others, to weed out capable and honest people.

One would think that, given the grueling application process, filled with investigations, background checks, tests both physical and mental, amongst other things, the polygraph adds nothing useful to the equation of one's worth.

However, it currently has the power to trump all other measures. It is an institutional anachronism that has far outlived any usefulness it might once have had.


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