Monday, June 09, 2008

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

Patty here…

Anybody out there ever take a polygraph AKA lie detector test? I did as part of a recent class I took. None of the other forty students volunteered to participate in the demonstration, so I found myself raising my hand toward the dimpled ceiling tiles of a frigid meeting room at the Holiday Inn. There is an old expression that cops sometimes use, “Send her to poly and put her on the box.” There’s no box anymore. I was going to poly but my responses would go directly into a laptop computer.


Use of the polygraph began in the late 1800s and the practice continues to generate controversy, which is why the results are not admissible in a court of law, at least not in California. As most of you know, the purpose of the test is to register a person’s physiologic responses to various questions. Monitors on the body simultaneously record changes in blood volume pulse rate, skin resistance changes, and respiration rate. Since you can’t control the perspiration on your fingertips or your blood pressure, stress levels associated with certain questions can help examiners evaluate whether or not your answers are truthful. What the examiner is looking for is consistency of reactions. That’s why he asks the same question multiple times.

Before the test began, the examiner proposed a series of informal questions. He told me in advance that he would be asking me a simple math question. My relationship with math is tenuous, but I was convinced I could suck it up and crunch the numbers. In fact, I consider myself fairly cool under pressure, so I was even feeling a bit smug.



After he explained the procedure, an assistant placed monitors on my fingertips, a blood pressure cuff on my arm, and tubes that crisscrossed my chest and abdomen. The tubes were tighter than I’d anticipated, making that Fuddruckers burger and French fry lunch seemed less like a good idea. For a moment, I imagined myself being interrogated under a naked light bulb in a 1940s noir film.

I was not allowed to look at the examiner during the test. His first question was, “Is your name Patty?” I said yes, even though my name is actually Patricia. After several more questions, all spoken in a low monotone, he dropped the math bomb.

The calculation was relatively simple, something like, 14 times 9 minus 7, but the idea of 40 people watching me count on my fingers and toes created a flashback of my seventh grade math teacher, tapping her pointer on the blackboard in a horrifying exercise she had created to teach us rapid addition.

“One hundred nineteen,” I said.

Without pausing, the examiner went on to the next question.

After his assistant unhooked me, the examiner showed my results to the class. The math question had spiked my blood pressure like crazy. That segment of my chart looked like the Pyrenees Mountains.


In other words, the question had elicited strong emotions, rendering my answer “inconclusive.” Even though I wasn’t lying—14 times 9 minus 7 is 119—my truthiness had taken a hit.

The class immediately questioned why the machine hadn’t detected the lie when I’d answered yes to the Patty question and why a truthful response to a math question was pronounced “inconclusive.” I wondered what would have happened if the question had been “Did you kill Roger Ackroyd?” What if I'd answered no truthfully, but because the question triggered a negative but unrelated Agatha Christie flashback, the hike in my blood pressure made it seem as if I was lying?

Of course, my test was only a demonstration. A real polygraph would have been longer and more complex. Still, it generated some interesting issues. Does anybody other than me feel a short story kicking around in your head?

Feeling confident? Here are a couple of interesting sites about beating the test.

Happy Monday!

P.S. Here's a picture of Groupie and me at the Mysteries to Die For book signing on Saturday.

24 comments:

  1. Patty, a fascinating blog, and a good look at why the polygraph is not acceptable in court. It can be a tool outside the legal system, but no judge (at least in my experience) will accept the results whether positive or negative.

    It still amazes me after all these years how many people outside the system believe in the infallibility of the test. Then again, sometimes I think these are the same people who believe that STAR TREK was filmed on location, or CSI is an accurate picture of police procedure.

    Makes you wonder....

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  2. patty smiley6/09/2008 6:45 AM

    Well said, William. I think the police use the "inconclusive" answers as a springboard for interrogation questions, but the test seems to be used for many other reasons, like pre-employment. Makes you wonder, all right.

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  3. Dirty Harry Callahan6/09/2008 7:19 AM

    You ask me, a quick sap to the kidneys gets a response that ain't "inconclusive."

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  4. Go-Lo, I cannot tell a lie....dispite the fact that I am not hooked up to a freaking "magic 8 ball" of truth discernment: You and your book look fabulous... oh, and "Groupie" looks much like I pictured him: a character from Mom's Homemade Comix.

    Go-Lo, did you know there is a whole show devoted to this subject...it's one of those "reality" shows, The Moment of Truth. It should actually be called, "I'm so low brow and hard up for money that I'll embarrass and humiliate myself, my family, and even my friends, on NATIONAL TV, for a shot a some cash."

    I don't think Diogenes is the talent director.


    Jon

    ps: What? Star Trek wasn't filmed on location? I could swear that in episode 23, when Kirk asked about the number of Romulan invading forces, Spock replied that he's have to Google it and get back to him...

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  5. Thanks for the tip, Dirty. I've put a sap on the top of my shopping list.

    Jon, you make me laugh. Do let us know when you're on The Moment of Truth so we can all tune in :o)

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  6. Funny you should write about the polygraph, because I was thinking about polygraphs at 4:00am this morning (I kid you not, seriously, I was), while lying in bed listening to next door's dog yapping its head off. I wondered what the outcome would be if I snatched it and drove it into the mountains to languish up there, never to return. Would I be caught? And if they polygraphed me, how could I lie and not be caught. They say you get really weird thoughts in the wee hours, and I think a yapping dog will make them even weirder.

    I am shocked about Star Trek. You mean, they don't beam up (or would it be down) with all that camera gear?

    By the way, I think you were very brave, Patty, to volunteer. Who knows what they might have asked you!

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  7. patty smiley6/09/2008 7:52 AM

    And for those of you who may not have Googled the reference to Diogenes as I did, I will enlighted you with the help of Wikipedia:

    Diogenes "the Cynic"
    Greek philosopher, DOB 412 BC
    Made a virture of extreme poverty (we authors can SO identify)
    Waged battle to debunk social values and institutions.

    Hmmmm...

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  8. Patty,

    It's also interesting that most people consider the refusal to take a polygraph test an indication of guilt rather than the mere common sense that it is.

    When my cousin Rod was a grocery stockboy, the store owner got the bright idea to administer a polygraph to all employees, apparently just in case anyone was stealing.

    My cousin, a rather bright fellow, not to mention somewhat outraged, tossed out answers to questions like "Where are you?" with such as "Chicago" (nowhere near Chicago, of course), with nary a blip. He quit the next day.

    No way I would ever take a polygraph. Someone could always find a way to manipulate the results.

    Y'know. Either a cop, or a lawyer...let alone a mystery writer. Or a cop or a lawyer who is also a mystery writer. ;o)

    Ravishung pic. Lucky Groupie.

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  9. patty smiley6/09/2008 7:56 AM

    Our J, you are so correct. They could have asked me a host of questions that would have prompted me to take the 5th. Unfortunaely, "you mean, today?" is not an allowed answer.

    I sympathize. Yapping dogs constitute torture. However, I would suggest that you take the owners into the woods. I'll bring my new sap.

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  10. Good grief, Patty. Here I thought you were Googling "Romulan forces".

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  11. ..or, "Romulan forces, invading, number of".

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  12. patty smiley6/09/2008 7:59 AM

    Yes, refusing a polygraph creates a high degree of suspicion. Strange. I would love to take a real polygraph just to see the results. Could be interesting.

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  13. "The Romulan Star Empire (or simply, Romulan Empire) is a major galactic regional power from the 22nd through 24th centuries, encompassing the Romulan people and their subject worlds and species. The Empire was known for its xenophobic character and policies of extreme secrecy and territorial protectionism."

    I have to get up pretty early in the morning to keep up with the wide base of knowledge of our smarty pants readers. You guys rock!

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  14. patty smiley6/09/2008 8:04 AM

    Gak! That last comment was me. What happened to my fingers? Must have been a Romulan territorial protection plot.

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  15. Go-Lo, while the info you posted is true.....Diogenes is most notably known for walking around in daylight while holding a lit lantern. He did this in his quest to find "an honest man." He is a classified as a cynic, I prefer to cal him a realist.......
    As a side note for those interested in etymology, Cynic comes from the Greek kynikos, the adjective form of kyon, meaning dog. To Diogenes, dogs are thought to know instinctively who is friend and who is foe. Unlike human beings who either dupe others or are duped, dogs will give an honest bark at the truth.


    Jon


    PS: Finally, the day comes when all those classes in Philosophy pays off.....

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  16. Patty, now you have to google xenophobe.......today's thought o'da day: It's ALL greek to me.

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  17. My mother is the ultimate lie detector. I'd rather face a machine than her with a lie any day!

    Fabulous picture of both of you!

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  18. Loved it, Louise! There was a joke e-mail going around years ago, and the one I remember is "Send a group of mothers. Moms can spot a lie faster than a twenty-year homicide detective."

    Remembering MY mother, well, that is not an "inconclusive" statement...:)

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  19. patty smiley6/09/2008 8:56 AM

    Jon, can Diogenes help Our J with her dog problem?

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  20. To bastardize Rationalism and respond to the philosphical problem posited by Patty re: our J..."I think, Therefore he can."

    another interesting tidbit which ties in the query of a week or so ago [what event would you want to know "the real story"] and today's search for truth....I hear that Senator Larry Craig is coming out with a "tell all" book giving us the TRUE story behind the "incident." From what I understand, the audiobook is going to be read by George Michael.

    Jon

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  21. James O. Born6/09/2008 11:35 AM

    Any cop will tell you "it's the examiner not the test." A good Poly examiner can read people as well as the machine.

    I have ones I trust and one's I don't.

    Good post.

    Jim

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  22. patty smiley6/09/2008 5:33 PM

    Sheesh! Larry Craig should just shut up already. James O has just come up with an intriguing new series idea: the psychic polygraph examiner.

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  23. Wow! Another example of why I love this blog. This was posted Monday, and I'm reading it in the wee hours of Tuesday, and all these people have given these great responses to this interesting post. Diogenes, indeed! I work for a psychologist--okay, and I'm married to him too, for 37 years--and I've read lots about suggestibility, etc., and the fallibility of truth-detectors. Great responses, you fellow blog readers. Certainly a short story here, though not for me. I work in the 6th century. Psychology is the same but ohhh, the technology you modern guys have. The problem: convincing the people the technology isn't as good as they are led to believe!

    I love coming here!

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  24. patty smiley6/10/2008 7:32 AM

    Sally, thanks for joining us, even in the wee hours of Tuesday morning!

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