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Experts think proposal for polygraph tests a bad idea

Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

A main supporter of the idea to re-introduce the tests is a private investigator’s company that sells polygraph machines

KUALA LUMPUR – January 17, 2017: The idea of reintroducing polygraph tests to screen public servants has been shot down by experts as being such a bad idea.

Foreign experts have pointed out to The Mole that the method has been proven to not being able to detect lies.

Psychology expert Professor Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University, Massachusetts, in an email today wrote that the supposedly near-perfect accuracy of polygraph machines in lie-detection tests lack considerable theoretical support.

The New Straits Times and others have been urging the Malaysian government to use these tests to curb corruption and protect the integrity of the civil service.

Today the NST reported that the Public Service Commission (SPA) was willing to buy the polygraph machines and hire trained polygraphers.

Citing findings from several of his exhaustive studies, Saxe said polygraph tests in essence only measure anxiety.

“A polygraph test operates on a simple principle that anxiety is related to lying. Yet it is clear that anxiety has a host of causal factors and making attributions of deception is cognitively complex.

“People are anxious sometimes when they’re telling the truth, and they can be not anxious sometimes when they’re lying. The more practiced you are at lying, the less anxiety is associated with it.

“It is for this reason that many scientists are sceptical about claims for polygraph testing,” wrote Saxe, whose 1983 report over the inaccuracy of the tests led to a nationwide ban on private employers giving the tests to employees.

What might cause the practical success in using polygraph tests, Saxe wrote, can be attributed to an interrogation technique known by social psychologists as the bogus pipeline.

The technique is based on the idea that people might give truer responses if they fear getting caught in the act of lying.

An examinee who believes that a test is accurate is likely to display arousal when responding deceptively or feel reassured when responding truthfully.

“In contrast, a subject who does not believe in the efficacy of the test is likely to be less aroused by questions answered untruthfully and highly anxious when answering honestly,” stated Saxe in a scholarly article in 1994.

Saxe had in 1991 assisted a US-based television station in a hidden-camera experiment where four polygraphers were hired to examine four suspects, of whom one was supposedly guilty of theft.

All the suspects were paid to convince the polygraphers of their innocence; no one however had stolen anything but at the end of the experiment, one of the suspects was inevitably named guilty by the examiners.

George Maschke, another expert who is a former US army intelligence officer, pointed out that it is dangerous and irresponsible to place any reliance on the outcomes of polygraph tests.

Maschke, who co-founded an anti-polygraph movement, Anti-Polygraph.org, deemed such was so because polygraph tests had not advanced in the way a scientific field should.

“That is because it is not a science, it’s an interrogation technique. It can be useful in getting confessions but it is not reliable in and of itself. Polygraph tests can be easily beaten.

“You don’t have to be a trained spy or sociopath. You just have to understand how to recognise the control questions and augment reactions to them with techniques such as biting the side of your tongue or solving a math equation in your head,” Maschke writes.

Interestingly, even the inventor of the polygraph machine, John Augustus Larson, became so horrified by law enforcement’s unscientific use of his devise to the point that he had called the machine a Frankenstein’s monster in 1922.

This was documented in Ken Alder’s The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession.

The Mole did a check and discovered that online classes that teach people how to beat polygraph tests are widely advertised on the Internet, particularly in the dark web.

It was also reported that some infamous criminals have been known to be able to pass the test by being super chill.

For example, in 2003 the BBC reported that a certain Gary Ridgway had admitted he was the so-called green river killer who murdered 49 women in Seattle in 1987. Apparently Ridgway had passed his polygraph test with flying colours.

Why the Malaysian government should be considering to reintroduce something that most scientists regard as pseudoscience is anybody’s guess.

One of the supporters of this idea to have polygraph tests is Datuk Akhbar Satar, president of Transparency Malaysia. Incidentally one of the businesses of Akhbar & Associates deals in the selling of polygraph equipment and organising courses on polygraphing.

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About the author

Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at zaidiazmi91@gmail.com.