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The Polygraph Test is an Accurate Means of Detecting Lies

The Polygraph Test is an Accurate Means of Detecting Lies

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Angela McCourt. Originally submitted for Psychology , with lecturer Bryan Roche in the category of Psychology
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Angela McCourt. Originally submitted for Psychology , with lecturer Bryan Roche in the category of Psychology

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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12/13/2013

 
AbstractIt is important to detect lies and to discriminate between truth and deception, with the conceptof a link between emotion and deception being explored for centuries. The majority of individuals display emotional responses when they are being deceptive, however these levelsof anxiety may differ across individuals, with numerous extraneous factors affectingemotional responses. It has been demonstrated that everyone lies, and that our ability todetect lies in others is that of chance. Therefore there has been great effort in developing aninstrument that will accurately detect lies. One of the most recognisable instruments for liedetection is a polygraph, first produced by Marston in 1917. A popular misconception is thatthe polygraph test is an accurate means of detecting lies. There is a culturally shared belief that the polygraph is infallible. For example, if you fail the test and are guilty, the test hasworked; if you pass the test and are innocent, the test has worked; if you pass the test and areguilty, but later admit your guilt, the test has elicited a confession and so has worked. Inreality, the polygraph is fallible, not only can innocent individuals appear guilty (falsenegatives) and guilty individuals appear innocent (false positives), but guilty individuals canlearn to beat the polygraph through the use of counter-measures. In addition, the results of a
 polygraph rely on the polygraph examiner‟s interpretation of the data, which is subjective
rather than objective. There are a number of reasons as to why this myth continues to persist;the media consistently portrays the polygraph as an accurate measure of deception, it hasbeen used during a pre-employment screening (although this now only occurs in certainprofessions), and the polygraph has been successful in detecting deception, just not in areliable or valid way. However, more recently, individuals are becoming more skepticalabout the accuracy of the polygraph and so perhaps this myth may be on its way out.
 
The ability to detect lies and to discriminate between truthful and deceptiveindividuals is of the upmost importance to any justice system, as it is may be crucial for acourt to know of any concealed information related to a criminal act. In addition,psychologists are also interested in how individuals detect lies in others, due to our basicdesire to know and recognise deception (Edelstein, Luten, Ekman, & Goodman, 2006).According to Ford (2006) everyone lies, and several studies have demonstrated that aindividual
‟s accuracy in detecting lies
in others is, on average, the same as would be expectedby chance (e.g.,
Ekman, O‟Sullivan, Friesen, & Scherer, 1991; Malone & DePaulo, 2001).
Consequently, there has been much effort in developing methods and instruments that havethe ability to accurately detect lies. The polygraph is perhaps one of the most well-knowninstruments used to differentiate between a truth and a lie. As such, the polygraph is referred
to as a “lie detector” an
d is classed as a deception detection test. The purpose of this essay isto demonstrate what a polygraph actually measures, to provide evidence to counter the myththat the polygraph is an accurate means of detecting lies and to explore some of the factorsthat may contribute to this myth still being perceived as true by the general population.The concept that a link exists between emotion and deception is not a new one (seeGrublin & Masden, 2005 for a historical review). It was Marston (1917) who first proposedthe polygraph as an instrument to detect lies. This polygraph test consisted of a standardsphygmomanometer
 
(blood pressure cuff) and a stethoscope. During questioning bloodpressure was measured intermittently, and Marston believed that elevated autonomic (bloodpressure) responses occurred when the individual engaged in deception, and that this was afear response. Marston claimed to have discovered the specific response for a lie andpublicly endorsed his polygraph by appearing in advertisements and magazine articles(National Research Council [NRC], 2003). Noteworthy is the fact that Marston was also thecreator of the female comic hero, Wonder Women, under the pen name Charles Moulton.
 
This character possessed a magic lasso that was capable of making all those encircled in it totell the truth. This, and his public endorsements, has perhaps aided the polygraph to becomea modern myth as being an accurate means of lie detection.Today, the polygraph has become more technologically sophisticated and assesses anumber of physiological activities, such as heart rate/blood pressure, respiratory rate and skinconductance. The utility of a polygraph as a lie detector is based on the assumption that theemotional response of anxiety (not fear), which elicits an excitatory physiological response, isan indicator of deception (Ford, 2006). The majority of individuals display emotionalresponses when they are being deceptive, however these levels of anxiety may differ acrossindividuals (Ekman, 2001). There are a number of reasons for increased anxiety, includingthe fact that most of us are told that telling lies is wrong from a very young age, there is also afear element of being punished if caught in a lie, as well as the fear of being labelled a liar(Camp, 2003). It is also important to note that what a particular person thinks or feels aboutlying, or of the polygraph itself, affects the test (Saxe, 1991). For instance, those who findlying acceptable, with most people finding it acceptable to lie in specific contexts and/or inrelation to specific topics (DePaulo, Kashy, Kirkendol, Wyer, & Epstein, 1996), and do notbelieve that the test is valid, typically show less reactivity during a polygraph. In addition,other factors interfere with the accuracy of the polygraph, for example, fatigue, alcohol, drugs(both prescribed and non-prescribed), psychopathology, and physical health all affect theresults (Lykken, 1998). Furthermore, the polygraph cannot distinguish between lying, fear,anxiety or excitement and often the polygraph examiner confuses arousal with guilt (Saxe,1991). Therefore, it does not have the ability to strongly and uniquely detect lies, and thisapproach is highly controversial (Kleiner, 2002).The most frequently used form of a polygraph is the Control Question Technique(CQT) (Ben-Shakhar, 2002). It has been applied to criminal investigations, as well as

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