Lie Detectors Don’t Prove Much Judge

So apparently Roy Moore has taken a lie detector test to prove his innocence. The pathetic nature of this further attempt to stall Doug Jones aside a lie detector test proves very little. In order to become a security guard in California you need to pass a lie detector. It isn’t hard. When I became a security guard they gave me the address of a PI in Glendale (it might have been Pasadena, this was many years ago so I’m not sure). Showing up on the doorstep for a PI in LA county made me feel like I had stepped into a Film Noir, but the end result was very underwhelming to say the least.

You see the first step of taking a lie detector is actually going over the questions you will be answering. Because being asked a question can create an anxious response. Especially if you know that your answer is being evaluated for it’s truthfulness. The expectation that you might be lying is a fear inducing thought. And in my case it was directly connected to getting a job, a job I desperately needed. That’s anxiety city.

So the PI looked over the forms I handed him from Guardsmark and jotted some stuff down. Then he began going over the questions he was going to ask me. This is all standard.

“Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

“Like a parking ticket?”

“No no that’s not a crime. You see that’s why we have to go over the questions first. Otherwise the machine might be wizzing like crazy right now, because you’re wondering what constitutes a crime.”

I nodded. That made sense. We went over a few more questions then he hooked me up to the machine. A polygraph machine, just like the one used on Jerry Seinfeld and Gaylord Fokker, but with far less humorous results. These machines look pretty much the same way they do in films and TV. They essentially monitor your breathing and heart rate. The idea is that lying is an inherently anxious activity based on the fight or flight response. It doesn’t have to do with shame or guilt as much as the fear of being caught in a lie. A normal person should have increased heart rate and breathing while lying. So the easiest way to pass a lie detector is to tell the truth…or be a sociopath. As George Costanza put it “Remember it’s not a lie if you believe it.”

This is very applicable to Roy Moore. I’m not a fan or Moore hater. I think he was a bad candidate and that’s ultimately why he lost. But the idea that passing a lie detector proves he wasn’t lying is a bit naive. If he has done some of the things he’s been accused of then he could be a sociopath. A relatively mild one but still. In which case passing a polygraph wouldn’t be hard for him. But let’s say he has done some of the things he was accused of and he isn’t a sociopath. He could still pass a couple different ways. He might really believe he hasn’t done anything wrong. Self righteousness can be enough to get your body out of the fight or flight response. It’s only a biological state and our minds can control those. In fact he could have passed with just some simple breath coaching. Or by raising his baseline anxiety.

That’s the first thing the tester is supposed to do after hooking you up to a polygraph. They ask very normal questions.

“Is your name Aaron Gleason?”

“Yes.”

“Are you married?”

“Yes.”

Once the tester figures out where you are normally he establishes that as a baseline and will determine deception based on deviation. So Moore could have raised his baseline or controlled his deceptions.

Remember I’m not claiming Moore did anything wrong. The election is over as far as I’m concerned and I don’t vote in Alabama anyway. I’m just explaining what a polygraph test is and why it doesn’t go very far to prove Moore’s guilt or innocence.

It’s also possible that he’s misconstruing the results. Polygraphs don’t prove you aren’t a liar. Moore could have simply fessed up in the test itself just to “pass” and then failed to mention that part. The reason they have security guards tested is not to gauge character. It’s to try and double check some of the more important answers on applications. Now if you lied about multiple answers on an application and failed multiple answers on a polygraph about those questions that would certainly make your character suspect. But the point is that polygraphs at best can only tell the tester if you have lied about something specific. And one lie does not make someone a liar. Just like one hangover does not a drunkard make.

Along those lines a pathological liar should be able to pass a polygraph, because they aren’t designed to suss out liars. This isn’t necessarily identical to sociopathy. If you’re just comfortable telling lies then chances are you have a high baseline for anxiety anyway and lying would be a coping mechanism. And for this reason I’m sure lots of politicians could pass a polygraph. If lying doesn’t initiate a fight or flight response from someone then the polygraph has nothing to register.

After the machine is hooked up and the baseline is determined the tester does their best to maintain your baseline. It’s all very relaxed. They don’t suddenly go Bob De Niro on you “Are you a pothead Fokker?”

Although that question did come up.

“Have you ever smoked marijuana?”

“No.”

I never have. I’ve only been offered pot once in my entire life and I turned it down. For the simple reason that I think it smells like skunk. When I moved to California in 04 I had no idea what Mary Jane smelled like and for almost a decade I thought California was skunk infested. Then someone explained to me “no that’s pot you dumb home schooler!” I’m a missionary kid, but whatever.

In any case apparently my MJ virginity is so ridiculously uncommon that the tester concluded this was my most dubious response. It was the only question the PI asked me during the test more than once. He asked me three times if I had smoked marijuana. And after the test he handed me my paperwork and looked in my eyes

“you really haven’t smoked pot?”

“Nope.”

“Wow that’s crazy.”

But I do remember becoming anxious the third time he asked me. It felt like I had done something wrong. Still in the end he declared no deceptions. But most of the questions were easy, designed to help maintain my baseline.

“Besides the speeding ticket and other things we already discussed, have you ever had a serious moving violation?”

“Besides that one speeding ticket and my accidents in the Philippines no I have not.”

“You don’t need to clarify further we already did that. Just yes or no.”

“Okay sorry.”

Lie detectors just aren’t that big a deal.

Educator, podcaster, & writer

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store