The Polygraph machine also known as the lie detector was developed by John Larson and co-founder Leonarde Keele in the 1920s. Larson based the design of the polygraph machine on the systolic blood pressure test established William Moulton Marston. Marston used the blood pressure as a measure of lying behaviour as he argued that “the behavior of the blood pressure … constitutes a practically infallible test of the consciousness of an attitude of deception” (Marston, 1917). From the year of its creation and during the widespread of the polygraph machine, it has been used on various groups of people such as police officers, employees, women, communists, gays and paedophiles. Further, it has become a common sight in popular culture. Consequently, in order to address the question asked, in this essay I will aim to explore how the lie detector machine emerged by discussing how extracting confessions has shifted from the ‘third degree’ to lie detection technology. I will also discuss how the polygraph machine functions and whether it is a credible tool. The common subjects of the polygraph machine such as police officers, employees, women, communists and gays will also be analysed.
The structure of the American police institution in the 19th century was rife with physical brutality and torture which was known as the ‘third degree’. The third degree is referred to the “the inflicting of pain, physical or mental, to extract confessions or statements” (Skolnick, 1994). According to Richard A. Leo (2011), there are three phases of the third degree. Firstly, the physical phase in which the police practiced torture by physically inflicting pain on a person’s body whether it is by hand, belts or whips for instance. The second phase is of ‘covert third degree’ attacks which were physically violent but designed in ways that were hard to prove, for example by not leaving visible marks on the skin through techniques such as sleep deprivation for instance. The third phase is ‘psychological third degree’ in which mechanisms of psychological manipulation such as intimidation, bullying, deprivation of water and food are used to induce people to confess. Nonetheless, due to the inhumane and brutal methods of the third degree, the Wickersham report declared the third degree as an illegal practice. Thus, policing practices shifted from physical torture to psychological torture in which the police began to implement the use of the polygraph machine in their interrogations to obtain confessions. To some extent the polygraph machine ultimately functions to the same principal of judicial torture as they have the same aim of extracting a confession (Alder, 1998).Further, Police Chief August Vollmer described the lie detector as a “modified, simplified and humane third degree”; hence why the police became the first subjects to undergo a lie detection test.
The polygraph machine measures four indicators of autonomic arousal “…such as blood pressure, galvanic skin resistance, heart rate, and breathing depth while the subject is interrogated about his or her activities” (Alder, 2002). In order to produce and see changes in bodily responses, the subject is interrogated under a specific questioning technique. The ‘Control Question Technique’ (CQT) is the most popular questioning format which is commonly used in criminal investigations but can also be applied to other settings. The CQT compares subject’s physical responses to three kinds of questions irrelevant questions, relevant questions, control questions. The results extracted from the polygraph test determine whether the subject is ‘lying’ or not. The assumption underlying this test is that a guilty individual would plan to lie about the actualities of the case, and this would instigate a condition of hyper-arousal, unpredictable or increased physiological reactions. As Larson stated, the “idea that the body itself confesses, and this machine is able to trace and capture involuntary physiological responses to incriminating evidence” (Gibson, 2001).
Popular culture has played a significant role in the widespread of the polygraph machine. For example, the polygraph machine featured in the film ‘Blade Runner’ and has become a common feature on reality television shows. For instance, ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ is a reality-based show in which the lie detector is used to determine whether someone has cheated on their partner for instance. Similarly, this has spread to the UK where the lie detector is used in ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’ to determine whether someone is lying or not based on accusations. Therefore, since polygraph machines are “increasingly represented in popular American culture” (Gibson, 2001) the media has pushed the infallibility of the lie detector whereby many people believe it is reliable and valid.
When it came to the media coverage regarding testing the polygraph machine, it was mostly women who were used as the subjects. One of the reasons for women being the common subject of lie detector tests is because women are stereotyped as being innately secretive, deceitful, emotional and deceptive as compared to their male counterparts (Fuchs, 1985). Therefore, by using women as subjects they would get interesting results extracted from the polygraph that would be used as a marketing strategy to promote the product by attracting customers and to show that it ‘works’. The second significant reason is that women become a product of sexual objectification. According to Bunn (1995), images of the polygraph tests are often of a man and woman, where the women who are in “tight-fittings pneumographic tube accentuates the suspect’s breasts” are under the ‘male gaze’ by the examiner who is performing ‘voyeuristic surveillance’ (Bunn, 2012). Additionally, the role of the man as the examiner and the women as the subject suggests the gender power relations and the dichotomy of the two sexes, perhaps playing on the stereotypical narrative of men being controlling and powerful whilst women are repressive and weak. Consequently, women played a significant role as they essentially became a sexually objectified marketing tool used to sell and promote the widespread of the polygraph machine.
According to Susanne Weber (2014), the polygraph tests are a form of social control. In some corporate, governmental and federal organisations employers may adopt the use the of the lie detector machine during pre-employment screening or during employment to determine whether they have ever participated in any illegal activities such as stealing something from the workplace. This process acts as a disciplinary technique for controlling the behaviour of employees. Here, the mechanism of control is exerted not only by the presence of the employer, but the presence of the polygraph machine and the set of questions asked potentially create the notion of self-regulation in the employee as they are aware they will be scrutinised in the test so they will be less likely to partake in illegal activities. Thus, for Hanson (1993), lie detection techniques act as a tool of surveillance to monitor employees.
According to John Sullivan (2007), in the CIA’s polygraph program the polygraph tests were focused on identifying communists and homosexuals. The period after the Cold War in America created a sense of paranoia amongst Americans particularly the American government which opened up space for the use of the polygraph machine. The polygraph machine was used to screen government employees to detect any potential spies or communist sympathisers. However, the polygraph machine was not successful in extracting many communists since they are obviously professionally trained spies, thus homosexuals became the new target. Since homosexuality was seen as a social problem in the 1960s, there was a fear of the infiltration of gay men and women employees in the American government. Thus, homosexuals became subjects of polygraph examinations where any gay individuals found would be removed from work. Communist and gay targets suggest that the polygraph uses such subjects to justify the need for the polygraph machine and hence helped spread the use of the machine as it was portrayed as helping society to solve social ‘problems’.
In America, while polygraphs are inadmissible in court since lie detectors are considered as insufficient evidence but are still used by prosecutors and law enforcement agencies as an investigative tool. Although the machine does not work scientifically, it does ‘work’ in terms of extracting an interrogation. According to Leonard Saxe, the polygraph machine is a useful prop for the police as it aids them during an interrogation; he refers to this as the ‘theatre’ of interrogation. For Saxe, “if the examiner does the theatre well, and tricks the subject into believing that his or her lies can be detected, they might confess” and hence this would be successful for the investigation as a person as confessed. Although the polygraph machine has put guilty criminals behind bars, it has, however, imprisoned innocent people. The machine is a form of psychological coercion whereby due to the setting and nature of the interrogation inevitably induces anxiety and results in high levels of respiration, perspiration and heart rate. Here, the results of the polygraph test will automatically determine that the individual is lying or being deceptive even if he was innocent and feeling nervous.
Additionally, the lie detector is arguably a “scientific aid for social control” (Alder, 2007), where the examiner uses their position of power and control questions to some extent control the emotions of the subject for their own benefit. For example, in Netflix’s Confession Tapes ‘Down River’ episode shows that suspect Lawrence DeLisle’s was interrogated for approximately 8 hours and was given a polygraph test. During the most of the interrogation he denied intentionally killing his children, but at the end, he confessed. This raised some questions as the video showed him deteriorating due to the intensive interrogation and arguably ‘hypnosis’ did by the interrogator. Therefore, this example suggests that the role of the polygraph depends on the setting and by whom it’s conducted (Alder, 2007), as the examiner can coerce an innocent man into confession by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by making him believe that he committed the crime. Thus, the role of the examiner is critical in both administration and interpretation of results (Lewis and Cuppari, 2009).
The polygraph machine and the lie detector examinations have been criticised and questioned about its reliability and validity. For Ekman (1985), the polygraph machine is a misleading device as it does not detect lies; rather it is based on the psychological manipulation of the subject. For instance, the setting of the interrogations and the role of the examiner innately generate feelings of anxiety and stress due to an atmosphere of intimidation. For example, if an innocent person is being interrogated, they are more likely to be nervous and thus produce higher levels of perspiration for instance. Even if they are innocent, the machine will determine that the person is being deceptive since their level of perspiration is high. Thus, the polygraph machine does not have scientific credibility nor does it have any relation with deception as the polygraph machine merely measures changes in bodily responses that can be triggered by feelings of anxiety, fear, anger or embarrassment rather than guilt. Also, the polygraph results can be affected by PTSD, anxiety, depression and hence does not measure lies; rather it measures bodily changes.
Furthermore, there are ways to defeat polygraph examinations by controlling one’s breathing or tensing of muscles. An example is of American serial killer Gary Leon Ridgway who managed to pass a polygraph test. Although he was found guilty and imprisoned, the fact that he passed the polygraph test implies that even a guilty individual can pass the test through controlling their breathing or tensing of muscles. Therefore, due to the inherent unreliability of the polygraph machine it not used in court.