Polygraphs: placebo or trial by ordeal?

Chad Dixon, an Indiana man was recently sentenced to 8 months in jail for teaching people how to beat polygraph tests. The sticking point seems to be that polygraphs are used by the US federal authorities for screening applicants and detecting crimes, so if people could get past them they could do all sorts of nefarious things. But the reliability of polygraph tests is highly dubious, and false positives may have stalled many careers. So of course the UK is considering making polygraph testing compulsory for sex offenders, something the blogger Neurobonkers described as a return to trial by ordeal. Is it unethical to teach people to circumvent these tests?

The reliability and validity of polygraph tests are problematic: at the very least they have not been convincingly demonstrated. Indeed, the field does not seem to progress much: it does not seem to accumulate knowledge, it develops in relative isolation from related fields, the customers and regulators do not demand better work – even when faults lead to miscarriages of justice.

One simple explanation for this is that polygraphs could just as well be impressive empty boxes and still do their job: their real role is to create a social situation where people talk. As Washington Post quotes:

The president of the American Polygraph Association, T.V. O’Malley, … He also acknowledged that some of the polygraph’s value is simply in prompting people to tell the truth.

“It’s kind of like confessing . . . to a priest: You feel a little better by getting rid of your baggage,” O’Malley said. “The same thing often happens with a polygraph examination.”

The test turns answering questions into something different (an inquisition, critics say) and adds a pressure to tell the whole truth because of the implied powers of the machine. This “pipeline to truth” effect makes people less likely to lie – if they believe the polygraph works.

That is of course the real threat of Dixon’s business idea: to undermine faith in the detectors. In a sense polygraphs are placebos that lose effect if you doubt them. In fact, it is irrelevant if his method works or not, as long as people think it works and the detectors hence could be fooled. Reports from the national academies might not be as persuasive as someone making money.

Is it ethical to undermine polygraphs? After all, lying is typically morally bad, and many uses of polygraphs are situations where truthful answers do matter. A criminal planning new crimes might not want to admit it, but it is a good thing – even for him – if he can be prevented from committing them. A person in a position of trust should not lie to get that trust. Polygraphs make people lie a bit less.

Unfortunately they make people lie less because of deception: in order to function they must be surrounded by the appearance of great accuracy and valid use. The institutions using them must convince not just the interviewed people but their own staff that they are valid, since it is hard to maintain solemnity if one truly doubts a practice. Fortunately, as discussed in the above report, institutional ignorance and apathy works wonders here, substituting for deliberate deception a la Frankfurt’s “On bullshit”. However, any external or internal questions on validity are dangerous and must be quickly squashed – too much vested interest is at stake to allow checking the practice or free inquiry.

(There is also a very real risk of false confessions, where the pipeline to truth effect combined with outside pressure makes vulnerable people lie in an approved way.)

The reason trial by ordeal was unfair is that the accused was tested by a random test: their guilt has no bearing on whether the trial succeeded or not. It is not just to test people this way, even if they are guilty. Similarly polygraph tests, because of their unreliability, are not fair tests. In fact, they are worse than random in that various extraneous personal factors seem to creep in (including race; the Washington Post article notes that senior management always seem to pass tests that normally blocks 30-40% applicants). So helping people to evade them is actually improving justice: it gives more weight to other, better ways of finding truth.

The only unfairness is that some people might trust the test to work on them but think they would be able to defeat it if they took the course, yet not be able to take the course, and that institutions may still remain under the false assumption that the (now potentially deceptive) results really are good information.In both cases the public announcement of the training (and even better, the public demonstration that it works) serves to remove the unfairness. It would be bad to sell training if it was done secretly, but Dixon did it overtly.

While I have no opinion about the legalities of the Dixon case, or the ethics of his business, it seems to me that undermining current polygraph practices is a good thing. They seem to lack validity and reliability, and they both depend on and reinforce systematic deception. The public has an interest in the state using technology fit for the purpose. If there existed a good test for deception the situation might be different: the moral and practical value of discerning deliberate deceit is high, especially if it is done in a responsible manner. But the way to get to such tests involves forcing institutions to care about tests actually working, and not just looking like they work.

Earlier posts on this blog about deception detection


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6 Responses to Polygraphs: placebo or trial by ordeal?

  • Chris Hennick says:

    So you’re saying the way to treat placebo poisoning is with a placebo antidote?

  • George Maschke says:

    Excellent commentary. I’m a co-founder of AntiPolygraph.org, a non-profit, public interest website dedicated to exposing and ending waste, fraud, and abuse associated with polygraphs and other purported lie detectors. Anyone interested in how to fool the polygraph will find detailed information about that in our free book, The Lie Behind the Lie Detector, which also has chapters on the scientific status of polygraphy, its use by the U.S. government, and the various deceptions on which the sordid procedure depends.

  • Doug Williams says:



    Describing my training as teaching “countermeasures” so liars can pass the polygraph “test” is the same thing as describing the polygraph as a “lie detector”! Both descriptions are PURE, UNADULTERATED BULLSHIT! The word “countermeasures” can only be used to describe polygraph chart manipulation by the subject of a polygraph “test” when two conditions are met: 1) The polygraph “test” must be proven to be 100% accurate and reliable as a “lie detector”, and 2) the person is attempting to deliberately lie. There is never a case where BOTH of these conditions are met. In other words, you could only claim “countermeasures” are being used to thwart the polygraph operator’s ability to detect deception IF the polygraph is able to detect deception accurately 100% of the time and that that deception would be detected were it not for the use of “countermeasures” by a person intent on being deceptive. But, since many people know that just telling the truth only works half the time – i.e. the US Supreme Court, and the NAS report, among others, saying it is no more accurate than the toss of a coin – then a prudent person would try to mitigate the very strong probability of being falsely branded as a liar by learning how to produce a “truthful” chart. That would not be using “countermeasures” – that would be using common sense!

    Why do polygraph operators tell people not to research the polygraph before they take their test? It is very simple – the only way they can intimidate people with the polygraph is to keep them ignorant about how it works. When polygraph operators say I teach people “countermeasures” in order for them to “beat the test”. I simply say, that’s bullshit, because polygraph operators routinely call truthful people liars – and my technique is the only way for honest, truthful people to protect themselves from being falsely accused of lying. Go to the MEDIA page and watch the CBS 60 MINUTES investigative report I helped to produce and see the proof yourself – three out of three polygraph operators called three different truthful people liars on a crime that never even happened! You may also enjoy watching me prove THE LIE DETECTOR IS BULLSHIT on Showtime’s PENN & TELLER: BULLSHIT!

    So, let me emphasize this – I DON’T TEACH SO-CALLED “COUNTERMEASURES” – I simply teach people how to ALWAYS PASS by knowing how to show a perfect “truthful” polygraph chart! The word “countermeasures” is a word that has been misappropriated by polygraph examiners – it is used to describe what they say is a means to thwart their ability to detect deception. But polygraph operators have always maintained that they can tell when a person is using these so-called “countermeasures”. If that is true, how can anyone use them “beat” the test? But, for the sake of argument, let me ask a few more pertinent questions: If people can indeed be taught to use “countermeasures” to “beat the test”, wouldn’t that prove the polygraph is not a “lie detector”? Does the validity and reliability of the polygraph test demand that the subjects of the test must be ignorant about how it works? If anyone could be taught how to produce and/or prevent a reaction on the polygraph at will, wouldn’t that make the whole idea of a “lie detector” a fraud? And wouldn’t polygraph operators have to admit their little machine is actually just a sick joke – and that the polygraph instrument is simply a prop used by an interrogator to frighten people into making admissions and confessions? And would it not be prudent for the government to quit wasting money on something that is nothing but a fraud and a con job? The fact is the answer to all these questions is a resounding YES!

    Polygraph operators do not want to debate the validity of the polygraph as a “lie detector” because they will lose – and they certainly don’t want to answer any of these questions! They know they cannot prove the polygraph is valid and reliable as a “lie detector”, and they know they can’t justify their actions – so they just say that people who get my training are all lying and are only doing research on the polygraph in order to “beat the test”. Again, I say that is just BULLSHIT! I have spent almost forty years proving that the “lie detector” is just a myth, and it is common knowledge that just telling the truth only works half the time, so people are smart enough to know that they must LEARN HOW TO PASS or they will be falsely accused of lying. I don’t teach any so-called “countermeasures”! I don’t teach people how to “beat” the test! The fact is, people are getting my manual & video/DVD and my personal training because they are telling the truth and just want to make sure they pass – they know that just telling the truth doesn’t work! The methods I teach are very simple. I just show people how to remain calm when answering a relevant question and how to produce a reaction when answering the control questions so as to always produce what the polygraph operators say is a “truthful chart”. I have a manual, entitled HOW TO STING THE POLYGRAPH, and a DVD that teaches people exactly how to do this – it is available in the STORE page of my website http://www.polygraph.com. I also give practice polygraph tests on my own polygraph instrument to show them how well my technique works – for more information about this, go to the PERSONAL TRAINING page of my website.

    I was instrumental in getting most polygraph testing outlawed in the private sector. In 1988, with the passage of the EMPLOYEE POLYGRAPH PROTECTION ACT, administering polygraph tests actually became a federal crime! Even the U.S. Supreme Court refused to admit polygraph results into evidence, and ironically it was the U.S. Justice Department who argued that the polygraph results were not reliable and should not be admitted into evidence! I was a member of the Office of Technology Assessment, (an investigative arm of the U.S. Congress), studying the validity and reliability of the polygraph – our report basically said it was worthless as a “lie detector”. I also testified in the U.S. Congress in support of the EPPA. {Here is an interesting piece of historical trivia: When I testified in Congress, I put my manual, HOW TO STING THE POLYGRAPH into the Congressional Record, and the Senators and Representatives distributed more copies of my manual between 1984 and 1988 than anyone has ever distributed – including me! They sent them out by the tens of thousands in response to requests from constituents.} But, there were exclusions written into the law that allowed the government – local state and federal – to continue to use the polygraph. They attempt to justify these exclusions on the grounds that the government needs this tool to protect national security and the law enforcement officials need it to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. I have proved the polygraph is not a “lie detector” – the Congress, the Justice Department, the OTA, and all the scientific evidence agrees with me, so there is no justification for the government to continue to use it on the pretext that it protects our national security or the integrity of the criminal justice system.

    It is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS to use the polygraph as “lie detector” – the theory of “lie detection” is nothing but junk science. It is based on a faulty scientific premise. The polygraph operators have the audacity to say that there is such a thing as a “reaction indicative of deception”, when I can prove that “lying reaction” is simply a nervous reaction commonly referred to as the fight or flight syndrome. In fact, the polygraph is nothing but a psychological billy club that is used to coerce a person into making admissions or confessions. It is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS for government agencies to rely on the polygraph to “test” applicants, or to conduct any type of investigations relating to national security. It is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS for the criminal justice system to rely on an instrument that has been thoroughly discredited to determine whether or not a person is truthful or deceptive, or to use it to guide their investigations in any way – especially when the results cannot even be used as evidence in a court of law! And it is FOOLISH and DANGEROUS for anyone to believe they will pass their polygraph “test” if they just tell the truth! When you factor in all the damage done to people who are falsely branded as liars by these con men and their unconscionable conduct, this fraud of “lie detection” perpetrated by the polygraph industry should be a federal crime! The protection provided to some people by the EPPA should be extended to protect everyone from this insidious Orwellian instrument of torture! Shame on anyone who administers these “tests” – and shame on the government for continuing to allow this state sponsored sadism!

    So, here we have this diabolical dichotomy – the government protects some people from polygraph abuse and perpetrates polygraph abuse on others! The Congress outlaws the use of the polygraph in the private sector, (and distributes my manuals, teaching people how to pass their tests), the Justice Department argues that it should not be used as evidence in court, the Supreme Courts agrees and refuses to allow polygraph results into evidence, and the OTA issues a report saying all the scientific evidence proves it is not reliable – yet, after all this, many government agencies greatly expand the use of the polygraph to numbers never seen before in the history of the country!
    So what explains this schizophrenia in the government? Why do they outlaw it in one area and expand it in another? I’m afraid I know – I think President Nixon told us why the government uses it when he said, “I don’t know anything about polygraphs, and I don’t know how accurate they are, but I know they’ll scare the hell out of people, and that’s why I like to use them!” That mentality regarding the polygraph is the very reason I do what I do! I educate people about the polygraph so that the polygraph thugs can’t use it to scare the hell out of them – and even worse, call them liars simply because they have a nervous reaction on a relevant question! I teach people how to prove they are telling the truth because just telling the truth really only works about half the time! A person will probably fail their polygraph test unless they are trained to show the polygraph examiner what he expects to see from a truthful person. I have been asked this question many times: Can liars use this information to pass just as easily as truthful people? The answer to that question is YES! I have no control over who gets the information in my manual and video/DVD. But let me make this perfectly clear – I assume that people come to me for personal training because they know that just telling the truth only works about half the time. And, except for frivolous cases such as fidelity testing, or for demonstrations on television programs, speaking engagements and seminars, I will not knowingly teach a person to deliberately lie! Besides, liars can pass easily whether they have been trained or not – history is full of people who have lied and passed polygraphs with no problem. Aldridge Ames, the notorious spy, passed many polygraph exams – and he was an active spy when he took, (and passed) several polygraph tests! As a matter of fact there has never been even one spy ever caught by the polygraph! I have often demonstrated how simple it is to “beat the box” on national television programs. It is true that anyone can use my techniques to pass their polygraph test regardless of whether they are nervous or not, lying or not, no matter what. I have said that for over 40 years. I say it in hopes that those who use this instrument will realize that it is not accurate or reliable as a “lie detector” and will quit using it!

    By describing my training as “countermeasures” that people use in order to pass a polygraph as a form of cheating, or something used only by liars who are trying to “beat” the “lie detector”, polygraph operators are asserting something as a fact that is absolutely false – something that all evidence proves is false; i.e. that the polygraph is accurate, reliable, and effective in detecting truth and detecting deception. All the scientific evidence available proves that the polygraph is none of those things. The polygraph is no more accurate than the toss of a coin – in other words it is only able to detect deception approximately 50% of the time. This also means that unless truthful people get prepared to pass the test, over 50% of the time the polygraph con men will brand them as liars just because they are nervous. A sad irony is that often the people polygraph operators accuse people of using “countermeasures” are those who have no idea what that even means! As a matter of fact, polygraph operators are now so paranoid that one of the questions frequently asked on the polygraph test itself is if the subject has read my manual. Many of these unscrupulous jerks will fail or disqualify people just because they are suspected of the horrible Orwellian “thought crime” of educating themselves! But trying to “catch” anyone who uses the information in my manual and video/DVD to pass their polygraph test is an exercise in futility on the part of the polygraph operator, because everyone who uses the Sting Technique will ALWAYS PASS – and the only thing the polygraph operator will see is a perfect, natural truthful chart! As a matter of fact, the information in my manual is so effective, (and because the polygraph as a “lie detector” is so ineffective), the information in my manual and video/DVD is considered to be “contraband” – it is actually prohibited by Big Brother polygraphers in the government! This proves that polygraph operators are today’s version of the thugs employed by Orwell’s Ministry of Truth!

    It is bad, (but perhaps understandable, and even sometimes necessary), to use the polygraph as a prop for polygraph interrogators to frighten and intimidate people in order to get confessions or admissions of wrong doing – but it is never acceptable to take it a step further and disqualify applicants, deny security clearances, and revoke probations simply because a person has a nervous reaction on the polygraph “test” or because the polygrapher accuses them of using so-called “countermeasures”. Most polygraph operators and all polygraph associations say that the polygraph should only be used as an aid to guide investigators, and that the polygraph test results should never be the sole determinant of guilt or innocence, or truth or deception, or whether or not a person gets or keeps a job or a security clearance, (see AAPP statement in footnote below) – but the sad fact is, that happens every day to thousands of people. That fact alone should be the basis for malpractice lawsuits against polygraph operators! Polygraph operators are out of control – they no longer abide by the commonly accepted protocols agreed upon by their own professional associations – they don’t answer to anyone, and they don’t give a damn about the millions of people who are traumatized, and whose lives are ruined by their arbitrary and capricious actions. That is not only wrong, it should be illegal!

    After much thought, I have come to what I consider to be the only logical conclusion that can be drawn as to why government agencies, (federal, state, & local) continue to use the polygraph even though all the scientific evidence proves it is worthless as a “lie detector”. I believe they are using the polygraph as a subterfuge to avoid complying with federal equal employment regulations! What else explains the 65% “failure” rate for applicants who have already passed a very thorough background investigation? These agencies can circumvent federal laws and discriminate against people by denying employment to anyone they don’t want to hire and all they have to do is to say the applicant “failed” a polygraph test. By simply saying the person has “failed” a polygraph test, government agencies can hire and fire people at will and then just blame it on the “failed” polygraph test. There is no way anyone can appeal a hiring or firing decision that is based on a “failed” polygraph – and those who are denied employment or terminated have no recourse – they can’t bring a lawsuit for discrimination or wrongful termination! Do I believe the government agencies who utilize the polygraph are this nefarious? YES! And it is tantamount to criminal negligence on the part of those charged with oversight of these government agencies to allow them to continue to use this so-called “lie detector” testing!

    Now back to the so-called “countermeasures”. I have always said that I do not teach countermeasures simply because of the negative connotations associated with the term. I teach people how to protect themselves from being falsely accused of lying simply because they happen to have a nervous reaction on the wrong question. The late Professor David T. Lykken, who was the preeminent scientific expert on polygraphy, observed “If I were somehow forced to take a polygraph test in relation to some important matter, I would certainly use these proven, (techniques taught in my manual HOW TO STING THE POLYGRAPH), rather than rely on the truth and my innocence as safeguards; an innocent (person) has nearly a 50:50 chance of failing. And those odds are considerably worse than those involved in Russian roulette.” When the EPPA was enacted into law, the word “protection” was not put in the title of that law by accident. It was put there deliberately because the legislators in their wisdom knew that people needed to be protected from this unreliable instrument, and that they needed to be protected from being falsely accused of lying simply because they were nervous. So if you’re going to take a polygraph examination and, as Dr. Lykken said, you have a 50% chance of failing just because you’re nervous on the wrong question it would only be prudent to utilize my training so as to mitigate the danger of being accused of being deceptive when in fact you are simply nervous.

    So, I don’t use this word “countermeasures” to describe what I do. As I said, that is a word that is misused by polygraph operators. All I do is educate people about the polygraph and teach them how to control every tracing on the polygraph charts so as to always produce what the polygraph examiner expects to see from a truthful subject. Since many people do not have the protection afforded by the Employee Polygraph PROTECTION Act, they must have some way to protect themselves from being falsely branded as liars!

    For almost 40 years, I have been crusading against the use of the “lie detector” and the abuses caused by what its inventor, Dr. John Larson, described as “Frankenstein’s Monster”. This is what Larson said about his own invention: “The lie detector is nothing more than a psychological third-degree aimed at extorting a confession as the old physical beating were. I’m sorry I ever had any part in its development.” I would like nothing better than to stop my crusade. I would love to shut down my website and quit – my goal has always been to put myself out of business. My fervent hope, a hope shared by millions of polygraph victims, is that the day will soon come when no one will need my services because the polygraph is no longer being used. I am tired of this never ending, and very frustrating fight – and I will be happy to quit the day after all the polygraph operators quit running their scam! But I can’t give up yet – I still get far too many calls and emails from people telling me how the polygraph has ruined their lives. I started this crusade in 1979 and I plan to finish it. For more information about what I have done for all these years, get my book FROM COP TO CRUSADER: THE STORY OF MY FIGHT AGAINST THE DANGEROUS MYTH OF “LIE DETECTION” – it is available in the STORE page of my website http://www.polygraph.com. You can help me in my fight by getting this book and sending it to as many people as you possibly can! But, as long as the thugs and con men who call themselves polygraphers continue to use the “lie detector” to frighten and intimidate people, I will continue to fight them! I am committed to this fight – I must continue to help people who are faced with what is the most traumatic experience they will ever have to endure, because I am the only one who can and will do it. Until the polygraph is no longer being used, and people’s lives are no longer being ruined by this myth of “lie detection”, I will teach people how to protect themselves from being falsely accused of being a liar.

    Footnote: The American Association of Police Polygraphists: “Polygraph testing, forensic psychophysiology, and credibility assessment, are evolving fields of science, intended to be used as decision support tools. These tools should aid investigators and referring agencies in making decisions about the truthfulness or deception of individuals in diagnostic and screening test circumstances. The role of scientific testing is to provide information, while professional evaluators are the final authority on all matters that require expert judgment.”

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    Great post, Anders! I completely agree with you. However, I’ve found myself wondering whether Chad Dixon’s actions would have been defensible in a situation where polygraph technology was scientifically respectable and a reliable indicator of people’s honesty (let’s ignore the complicated problem of what might be necessary to justify this judgment). I think that, even then, his actions would be no worse than some widely tolerated activities. Trying to become better at lying is, I think, something we all do. Children seem hardwired for it. And, it is hard to imagine anyone responding to an observation along the lines of ‘You always clench your fists when you lie’ by doing anything other than trying to avoid clenching their fists the next time they lie. I haven’t read the article you link to, but I assume that Dixon’s ‘lessons’ must have involved a more sophisticated version of the observation I just mentioned.

    Of course, a difference between the observation I mentioned and Dixon’s lessons is that Dixon aimed through his lessons at helping people become better liars, whereas someone who makes the observation may aim at nothing in particular. But, even so, Dixon’s actions seem no worse than what we routinely accept from lawyers. Lawyers routinely help suspected criminals portray themselves in the best possible light by emphasising helpful information and obscuring what is unhelpful. We might frown upon it, but not only is it legal, it is a cornerstone of the justice process. We might debate whether lying and misleading should be viewed differently, but even this is contentious. There is an interesting article on this by Jennifer Saul: ‘Just go ahead and lie’, Analysis 72/1 (2012): 3-9.

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    Hmmm…I understand that the Dixon case has the benefit of undermining already-unreliable polygraphs and perhaps reducing their usage. But I think we’re overlooking a real cost.

    So, suppose the test is indeed worse than random – 40% likely to accurately rate the truthfulness of any given answer. This is bad, and it’s really unfortunate if the feds are using it to screen applicants. But Dixon’s course will make that test *less* accurate – reducing that 40% even lower. That’s because his course is not about correcting erroneous results, but increasing them – enabling people to lie while the machine claiming they’re telling the truth. This will make the feds’ already-poor test even worse, making it more difficult to screen applicants and increasing the risk of malfeasance, corruption, and so on. And I don’t think that Dixon’s course has significantly undermined the uptake of the test – there’s already abundant evidence you cite that’s much more reliable (plus other similar courses have been available for a while). His arrest has prompted some discussion, to be sure, but that ironically points to the justification for arresting him – not him teaching the course itself.

    Rebecca argues more strongly that it’s ok to train people to lie even on scientifically-reliable tests, comparing it to the coaching lawyers give their clients. But, there’s plenty of special privileges (such as confidentiality) we give to the lawyer-client relationship – there’s strong procedural justice-based reason not to interfere with their communications. Dixon is no lawyer. Training people to beat a truly reliable test that weeded out pedophiles from jobs overseeing children, bribe-takers from jobs with significant power, misogynists from managerial jobs, and so on would be very much against the public good.

    It’s important to note, though, that Dixon was not arrested merely for the training program (others have run similar programs without prosecution). Rather, contra Anders’ implications, it was because he was *not* open about the course. As the Seattle Times story linked to in the post says, “Prosecutors, who had asked for almost two years in prison, said Dixon crossed the line between free speech protected under the First Amendment and criminal conduct when he told some clients to conceal what he taught them while undergoing government polygraphs.” (I take it he was essentially instructing people to lie under oath, i.e., to commit a crime) The course wasn’t totally secret, but Dixon was evidently not open about it either.


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