I underwent a polygraph examination for the first time. I’m not under investigation for any sort of crime… it’s required for applicants to civil service positions, and it’s a part of the process of gaining employment with law enforcement agencies.
I was delighted to have received the call, if not a little surprised. I had applied for a position with them back in October, and had gone through the oral boards interview, and hadn’t heard anything after that. They had filled the positions that I had originally applied for, but this was a different position within the same pay grade, in a different department. I agreed to the appointment immediately, which they had scheduled for the very next day, a Saturday.
After the elation had faded, I became very nervous.
I had never taken a polygraph examination before. While I know enough about the process to have abandoned the childish impression of a “lie detector” the likes of which you might have seen on cartoons flashing a red “lie” light in response to the subject’s statement. But I knew that they would ask me questions about my drug use, drinking, and criminal past, and I worried that such facts about my life could be misconstrued, and that even if I passed the test (which I would), the revelations of the test could impact my perceived hireability.
The day of the appointment, I got up, got dressed, and put on some makeup… a rare thing for me, and drove downtown. I arrived early and met a couple of friends for coffee, who distracted me with philosophical conversation about humanity, the failings of the theistic binary, and the role that religion plays in human life.
It was a stormy day, and my attempts to get myself looking professional were wasted; I left the house looking like a fat Job Interview Barbie and arrived looking bedraggled. My examiner seemed nice enough, and he put me in an interview room with a questionnaire that was somewhere in between forty and sixty pages long. The room itself was constructed of unadorned cement brick. It contained on small table and two chairs placed on opposite sides. The carpet was the sort of flat felt-type carpet in the bland blue color that one sees so often in institutional decorating… not a dark blue, nor a light blue… the most nondescript blue in existence. He left the door open. The questions were on the subject of past and current criminal behavior, past and current drinking and drug habits, questions about self harm, about my temper, about sexually deviant acts and about the killing of animals.
Once the questionnaire was complete, he ran through the questions, and asked me for deeper details on a couple of them. I sat in the chair, and had two straps placed on my chest, one above and one below the heart, and some metal plates were strapped to my fingers. I was told to hold still and look straight ahead, and he tacked a sheet of paper with the number five written on it to the wall in front of me.
He ran me through the baseline test, in which he asked me “is it a one?” and “is it a two?” all the way up through six. He instructed me to say no to every question, meaning that I would have to knowingly lie as we got to the number five. Afterward he showed me the chart showing a change in breathing and sweating at the time that that question was asked, and explained that even though he had directed me to lie, and even though I may not have physiologically felt any different as I lied, that the metrics changed when I did.
The polygraph is a controversial piece of equipment. It is considered unreliable enough that the results of a polygraph examination are often not admissible in court. This makes sense, since a guilty verdict puts a person’s life and liberty in danger, and should not be reached based on bad data. This was not a test to determine guilt or innocence, though… it was more of a broad evaluation of a person’s character. How likely is this person to lie, to steal, to accept bribes? Can this person be blackmailed? The polygraph relies on a skilled examiner in order to be performed well, and to have the results interpreted correctly. This kind of subjectivity is terrifying, and the situation itself is one of manufactured intimacy that is startlingly immediate and very high-stakes. There is also a feeling of powerlessness… I had no way to appeal the results should they come out unfavorably, and I had to simply trust in the experience and credentials of this stranger… a stranger, I might add, who now knows more about me than many of my friends.
He then ran me through the polygraph examination, which consisted of I think twelve yes-or-no questions regarding the questionnaire I had completed. He would ask a question, I would answer with yes or no and only yes or no, and then we would wait twenty-five seconds before moving on to the next question. I had to sit totally still, and look straight ahead. Sit still, looking only straight ahead, for twenty-five seconds. Just try it.
It’s not as easy as it sounds.
He ran me through the questions twice, the same questions each time. When he told me that he was done, I sagged to the side in the chair, exhausted, dry-mouthed, and with my head pounding. Sitting still and looking straight ahead is not something I do. It’s not something most of us do… even when you think you’re sitting around doing nothing, you fidget without thinking about it, or look at that pattern of bumps on the wall that looks kinda like a person’s face. But we don’t sit still doing nothing, looking straight ahead. Not even when we sleep. The focus required to keep myself from moving was so tiring.
I passed the test. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I get the job, however. I have now admitted to my prospective employer all of my crimes, all of my drug use, all of my past and current drinking habits. I have admitted my financial past and present, the past due status of my current bills and my standing with collections agencies. I have revealed details about my temper and my past and current emotional state. They know about my bad times and my good times, and about all of the things that I’m ashamed of. Because admitting all of these things is necessary to passing the polygraph, and the polygraph is necessary for getting the job.
I can now see the power of the polygraph examination, if only for its psychological effect.
So I don’t know. We’ll see. How likely do you think you would be to get hired by an employer who knew everything bad about you?