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What is a Polygraph?

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What is a Polygraph?

Ambrose comicThe term "polygraph" literally means "many writings." The name refers to the manner in which selected physiological activities are simultaneously recorded.

Polygraph examiners may use conventional instruments, sometimes referred to as analog instruments, or computerized polygraph instruments.

It is important to understand what a polygraph examination entails. A polygraph instrument will collect physiological data from at least three systems in the human body. Convoluted rubber tubes that are placed over the examinee's chest and abdominal area will record respiratory activity. Two small metal plates, attached to the fingers, will record sweat gland activity, and a blood pressure cuff, or similar device will record cardiovascular activity.

A typical polygraph examination will include a period referred to as a pre-test, a chart collection phase and a test data analysis phase.

In the pre-test, the polygraph examiner will complete required paperwork and talk with the examinee about the test. During this period, the examiner will discuss the questions to be asked and familiarize the examinee with the testing procedure.

During the chart collection phase, the examiner will administer and collect a number of polygraph charts. Following this, the examiner will analyze the charts and render an opinion as to the truthfulness of the person taking the test.

The examiner, when appropriate, will offer the examinee an opportunity to explain physiological responses in relation to one or more questions asked during the test. It is important to note that a polygraph does not include the analysis of physiology associated with the voice. Instruments that claim to record voice stress are not polygraphs and have not been shown to have scientific support.

Who uses Polygraph Examinations?

The three segments of society that use the polygraph include law enforcement agencies, the legal community, and the private sector.

They are further described as follows:

  • Law Enforcement Agencies - Federal Law Enforcement Agencies, State Law Enforcement Agencies, and Local Law Enforcement Agencies such as Police and Sheriff's Departments.
  • Legal Community - U.S. Attorney Offices, District Attorney Offices, Public Defender Offices, Defense Attorneys, Parole & Probation Departments.
  • Private Sector - Companies and Corporations under the restrictions and limitations of the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA). Private citizens in matters not involving the legal or criminal justice system. Attorneys in civil litigation.

Why Critics Figures Vary -

One of the problems in discussing accuracy figures and the differences between the statistics quoted by proponents and opponents of the polygraph technique is the way that the figures are calculated.

At the risk of over simplification, critics, who often don't understand polygraph testing, classify inconclusive test results as errors.

In the real life setting an inconclusive result simply means that the examiner is unable to render a definite diagnosis. In such cases a second examination is usually conducted at a later date.

To illustrate how the inclusion of inconclusive test results can distort accuracy figures, consider the following example:

If 10 polygraph examinations are administered and the examiner is correct in 7 decisions, wrong in 1 and has 2 inconclusive test results, we calculate the accuracy rate as 87.5% (8 definitive results, 7 of which were correct.)

Critics of the polygraph technique would calculate the accuracy rate in this example as 70%, (10 examinations with 7 correct decisions.)

Since those who use polygraph testing do not consider inconclusive test results as negative, and do not hold them against the examinee, to consider them as errors is clearly misleading and certainly skews the figures.

Preemployment Test Accuracy -

To date, there has been only a limited number of research projects on the accuracy of polygraph testing in the pre-employment context, primarily because of the difficulty in establishing ground truth. However, since the same physiological measures are recorded and the same basic psychological principles may apply in both the specific issue and pre-employment examinations, there in no reason to believe that there is a substantial decrease in the accuracy rate for the preemployment circumstance.

The few studies that have been conducted on pre-employment testing support this contention. While the polygraph technique is not infallible, research clearly indicates that when administered by a competent examiner, the polygraph test is one of the most accurate means available to determine truth and deception.

For an excellent review of the research involving validity and reliability, including preemployment screening, see:

The Accuracy and Utility; of Polygraph Testing. (1984) Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 1984. Complete reprints may be purchased from the APA National Office.

 

Polygraph Screening in Police Agencies -

The Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988 (EPPA) prohibits most private employers from using polygraph testing to screen applicants for employment. It does not affect public employers such as police agencies or other governmental institutions.

In the testimony regarding EPPA it became clear that there were no current and reliable data on a variety of important issues about police applicant screening, although polygraph testing had reportedly been used for that purpose since at least the early 1950's.

In recognition of this gap, the APA Research Center at Michigan State University embarked on a survey of police executives in the U.S. to determine the extent of, and conditions in which, polygraph testing is being used for pre-employment screening The survey population included 699 of the largest police agencies in the United States, excluding federal agencies, and produced usable returns from 626 agencies, a response rate of 90%.

The major results of the survey showed the following:

Among the respondents, 62% had an active polygraph screening program, 31% did not and 7% had discontinued polygraph screening, usually because of prohibitive legislation.

These results make it clear that a great majority of our largest police agencies do have a polygraph screening program in effect. These agencies employ, on average, 447 officers and service a population averaging 522,000 citizens. They primarily use the polygraph to screen applicants for sworn positions, although 54% also screen persons interested in non-sworn positions. Approximately 25% of the persons tested are disqualified from police employment based on the information developed during polygraph testing which, by the way, is used both to verify information provided in an application form and to develop information that cannot be gotten by other means.

Only a very small proportion (2%) of agencies use polygraph testing as a substitute for a background investigation. A rank ordered listing of topics covered during polygraph testing revealed that investigation of illegal drug usage, employment related dishonesty, and involvement in felonies are the most important.

When asked to indicate what their reasons were for using polygraph screening, the great majority of the agencies indicated that it reveals information that cannot be obtained by other selection methods. Closely following this item in order, was that polygraph testing makes it easier to establish background information, that it deters undesirable applicants, and that it is faster than other methods of selection.

The three leading benefits of polygraph screening were that applications were more honestly completed; that higher quality employees were hired; and that there were fewer undesirable employees.

Over 90% of these agencies expressed either moderate or high confidence in their polygraph screening program and 80% of them reported that in their experience the accuracy of the testing ranged between 86%-100%. The only procedure that was considered to be as useful as polygraph screening was a background investigation; all others, including written psychological tests, psychological or psychiatric interviews, personal interviews, and interviews by a selection board were judged to be less useful.

Finally, this survey also showed that polygraph screening revealed applicant's involvement in serious, undetected criminality. For example, 9% of the agencies said that polygraph screening detected involvement by some applicants in unsolved homicides; 34% indicated some applicant involvement in forcible rape; and 38% showed some applicant participation in armed robberies.

Other serious, unsolved crimes, such as burglary, arson and drug offenses were also revealed by polygraph screening.

 

Errors in Polygraph Examinations
False positive, False negative -

While the polygraph technique is highly accurate, it is not infallible and errors do occur. Polygraph errors may be caused by the examiner's failure to properly prepare the examinee for the examination, or by a misreading of the physiological data on the polygraph charts.

Errors are usually referred to as either false positives or false negatives. A false positive occurs when a truthful examinee is reported as being deceptive; a false negative when a deceptive examinee is reported as truthful. Some research indicates that false negatives occur more frequently than false positives, other research studies show the opposite conclusion.

Since it is recognized that any error is damaging, examiners utilize a variety of procedures to identify the presence of factors which may cause false responses, and to insure an unbiased review of the polygraph records; these include:

Protective Procedures

  • an assessment of the examinee's emotional state
  • medical information about the examinee's physical condition
  • specialized tests to identify the overly responsive examinee and to calm the overly nervous
  • control questions to evaluate the examinee's response capabilities
  • factual analysis of the case information
  • a pre-test interview and detailed review of the questions
  • quality control reviews

Examinee's Remedies -

If a polygraph examinee believes that an error has been made, there are several actions that may be taken including the following:

  • request a second examination
  • retain an independent examiner for a second opinion
  • file a complaint with a state licensing board
  • file a complaint with the Department of Labor under EPPA
  • file a request for the assistance of the American Polygraph Association

Scope of Test Questions and Dissemination of Test Results Prohibitive Inquiries -

Personal and intrusive questions have no place In a properly conducted polygraph examination. Many state licensing laws, the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, as well as the American Polygraph Association, has so stated in language similar to the following:

NO EXAMINER SHOULD INQUIRE INTO ANY OF THE FOLLOWING AREAS DURING PRE-EMPLOYMENT OR PERIODIC EMPLOYMENT EXAMINATIONS:

religious beliefs or affiliations beliefs or opinions regarding racial matters political beliefs or affiliations beliefs, affiliations or lawful activities regarding unions or labor organizations sexual preferences or activities

In a law enforcement preemployment polygraph examination, the questions focus on such job related inquiries as the theft of money or merchandise from previous employers, falsification of information on the job applications, the use of illegal drugs during working hours and criminal activities.

The test questions are limited in the time span they cover, and all are reviewed and discussed with the examinee during a pre-test interview before any polygraph testing is done. There are no surprise or trick questions.

In a specific issue polygraph examination the relevant questions focus on the particular act under investigation.

 

Who Gets Results -

According to the various state licensing laws and the American Polygraph Association's Standards and Principles of Practice, polygraph results can be released only to authorized persons. Generally those individuals who can receive test results are the examinee, and anyone specifically designated in writing by the examinee, the person, firm, corporation or governmental agency which requested the examination, and others as may be required by due process of law.

 

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