The portrayal of polygraph testing in the media





Since its inception all those years ago, the lie detector instrument – or the polygraph– has seen much media attention in the form of television, film, novels and comics. This is understandable, as developing a sound way to test for deception was quite a feat. When you think back to your first exposure to the idea of polygraph testing, it is highly likely that it was through a drama-filled reality TV show or crime movie – wherein the guilty party was exposed much to the shock of all involved. It may come as more of a surprise to find out that in most cases, polygraph testing is misrepresented in the media, and in just a few minutes of reading, find out why that is as well as how professional polygraph testing differs from the standard representation.


The use of unsound polygraph testing for entertainment


One particularly infamous polygraph testing moment on television that comes to mind was the reality show “Love Island” lie detector test debacle. If you do not know, Love Island is a British reality series in which a group of women and men take part in various tasks with a partner – that they must repeatedly swap until they meet the supposed love of their lives. Typically during the height of the season, the male participants are made to participate in polygraph testing, answering questions written out by their partners in order to determine whether or not they are being honest.


In one case, this testing resulted in four female participants bursting into tears and a complete split of one of the series’ favourite couple. Many critics have presented evidence to show that the polygraph examiners present were not only unqualified, but purposefully read out false results in order to create tension and entertain the audience with more drama. Even if the results had been faithful, the testing conditions were far from appropriate.


Love Island is certainly not the only TV show guilty of misrepresenting polygraph testing. TV producers, whose jobs are quite literarily to create drama for our own entertainment, have been revelling in the shock factor of polygraph instruments for years. We have seen the lie detector instrument in reality show Lie Detective as well as in Fox’s Moment of Truth, to name two popular examples. Similarly, we recently covered the story of several celebrities undergoing polygraph testing for Vanity Fair. The fact that these tests take place with numerous cameras, people and distractions in the area make the results less reliable.


A brief history of polygraph portrayal


Lie detection boasts a very long history in mythology and generational tales. As a result, it has allowed modern fiction to use the polygraph instrument as a device that is more easily seen as plausible and scientifically sound. Some noteworthy examples of polygraph use include espionage themed TV shows and the reality shows already mentioned. The first Lie Detector television show aired in the 1950s, and years later, the Fox game show Moment of Truth was born.


In it, contestants were privately asked personal questions days before during a polygraph examination. During the show, they were asked the same questions in front of an audience that contained members of family and friends. Should they wish to advance further in the game, they needed to provide the “truthful” answer. The show was well-loved due to the never-ending drama and often heartache caused by some revelations, although many speculate that the show was significantly staged.




Similarly, the 93rd episode of the popular Discovery Channel show MythBusters also addressed the polygraph instrument. In the episode, the hosts attempted to fool the polygraph. They did so by using pain in an effort to increase the readings when answering truthfully – in attempt to trick the instrument and interpreter into interpreting the non-truthful and truthful answers as the same. Further, they tried to think of happy thoughts whilst giving a deceptive answer, and thinking about stressful things whilst giving an honest one. Unfortunately for them, neither technique was successful. In the end, the polygraph examiner correctly identified each innocent and guilty subject.


Polygraph testing also had a rather noteworthy career in comics as well. In the1940s, William Moulton Marston’s comic Wonder Woman was the embodiment of the major psychological principles when it comes to the science of lie detection. Wonder Woman – disguised as Diane Prince in her first solo comic issue – watched as her boyfriend attempted to extract the truth from the Nazi Baroness Paula von Gunther through a polygraph examination. In later episodes, she was seen to occasionally make use of lie detectors to determine the truth and single out deception in her various enemies.




Requirements for a valid polygraph testing


There are a number of prerequisites that should be observed when performing polygraph testing. As previously mentioned, the lack of these standards in many reality TV shows and programs increases the likelihood of inaccurate polygraph results. The degree of professionalism of the polygraph examiner is also highly relevant. The following are some requirements that a polygraph examiner must meet in order to be considered a professional:


  • The examiner must have participated in training at an accredited polygraph training facility.
  • The polygraph examiner must be an upstanding citizen and have good association with the relevant federations and institutions.
  • The examiner must have a level of experience that enables them to accurately analyse chart tracings.
  • They must be objective, impartial and independent.
  • The examiner must always insist that the polygraph testing technique and procedure be properly explained to the examinee.
  • They must be willing, and able, to testify as an expert witness in the case of HR or legal proceedings.


There are also requirements for the examinee, the individual who will sit through the polygraph testing procedure. For example, they must agree that the examination is being done voluntarily, and state this in writing. Some other requirements include:


  • The examinee must be free of serious illness.
  • They must not be under the influence of narcotics or alcohol during the examination.
  • The examinee must be relatively well-rested before the examination.
  • They must have been notified and prepared before the test.
  • The examinee must not have been subjected to accusatory interrogation before the exam.


Similarly, the polygraph instrument itself must:


  • Be able to record tracings for cardiovascular and electrodermal skin responses, as well as breathing patterns (at the very minimum).
  • Be in good working condition.


There is also the matter of the polygraph technique itself, the specifics of which stray wildly – from what is considered to be standard – in film and TV. In order for it to be valid, the following techniques must be observed and applied:


  • The environment in which the examination is being administered must be quiet as well as lack any serious visual or audio interference.
  • Each question must be thoroughly reviewed with the individual undergoing the examination before any collection of results takes place.
  • A valid and internationally accepted type of questioning must be used.


There are a few different types of questions frequently included in polygraph tests, namely relevant questions, control questions, irrelevant questions and concealed information questions. We have compiled a brief summary of the above question types below:


Relevant questions


This type of questioning involves asking questions that are directly related to the focus of an investigation or inquiry. For example, in the instance of a of a phone theft, a relevant question would be “Did you steal Robert Smith’s phone?”


Control questions


These questions are used for the purpose of comparison. Many lie detection experts believe that truthful subjects tend to be more concerned (and therefore physiologically affected) by control questions than relevant questions. As a result, the responses of the control and relevant questions are compared. Should we take the relevant question example of “Did you steal Robert Smith’s phone?” and substitute it with a control question, it could be along the lines of “Other than what you have told me, have you ever stolen anything in your life?”




If the belief of many lie detection professionals is to be followed, then the subject undergoing the exam would be more concerned about this control question than the previous relevant question. However, this is simply one of many views about how control and relevant questions differ from one another.


Irrelevant questions


This category of questioning is used to ascertain a subject’s basic physiological response to answering neutral questions. This standard will then be used as a comparison if charts display any different physiological reactions when other questions are posed. An example of an irrelevant question would be “Is today Monday?” or “Are you called Tony?”


Concealed information questioning


The fourth type of questioning used in polygraph examinations differs from control and relevant questions which ask subject whether they have committed a crime. Concealed information questions aim to uncover information about a crime that none other than a guilty party would possess. This information may include details to do with the means of committing a crime, like a weapon, or the site of a crime. It is widely hypothesised that guilty individuals will showcase different physiological responses to the correct details than to incorrect details – whereas innocent subjects will respond in the same manner to all the questions.


Some well-known films with polygraph testing


Should you consider yourself a film buff with an interest to see how polygraph tests have been represented – and often misrepresented – in film, the following films are some of the most well-known works featuring polygraph examinations:


Meet the Parents


One of Hollywood’s most cherished comedies, Meet the Parents is a must-see for any Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro fans. In the film, De Niro, who plays Stiller’s father-in-law, hooks Stiller up to a polygraph instrument. He asks him “Have you ever watched a pornographic video?” and Stiller attempts to say “No” as one of the instrument’s needles flicker wildly – much to De Niro’s disapproval.




Flash Gordon


In the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, the Princess Aura is interrogated by Klytus and subjected to a lie detection test. The procedure is misrepresented in order to create more drama by the loud siren and blinking light that is set off when she tells a lie.


The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension


In this thrilling film, the infamous Lord Whorfin subjects the protagonist Buckaroo to the Shock Tower, a device that not only doubles as a polygraph instrument, but also a tool that shocks the subject when they attempt to deceive.


The Sentinel


In the 2006 film, Secret Service Agent Pete Garrison is accused and blamed for treachery, and has to go on the run as a result of failing a polygraph examination. He failed purposefully out of fear that the testers will discover his affair with the First Lady.