Tuesday, January 25, 2005

a polygraph test as a condition of employment

from my email by Ron Allen to wittgenstein-dialognet

I took a polygraph test as a condition of employment at a company when I lived in Texas.

The company did not allow anyone that smoked cigarettes. That's right, the owner was a vehement anti-smoker. The purpose of the lie detector was primarily to weed out people that smoked. I don't, didn't, and never did smoke, but it made no difference, I still had to sit down with electrodes attached to me while a guy asked questions.

The first thing that they do is to go over all the questions that you will be asked. They even give you a list of them to look at. This builds your confidence in the examiner, and it relaxes you--something that they call drawing a baseline of physiological responses. Second, the guy hooks up the wires to your chest, arm, and palm (breathing strain guage, heart rate monitor, and galvanic skin response). Then the examiner relaxes you for a while by asking you neutral, background questions such as the month of your birthday or your mother's maiden name.

This is how my polygraph test went. At first.

The examiner was a retired detective from the Dallas police department. He expressed surprise that I had never smoked; this was one of the official questions, on the list, one that I was aware was going to be asked while I was being recorded. About half-way through the interview, with the needles wiggling of course, he pulled out a pack of Marlboros and started smoking. I was astonished that he was trying to incite me into a nicotine attack or something even in the midst of a polygraph test whose express purpose was to determine if I smoked or not. The duplicity shocked me. And what is more, I recognized that someone who didn't smoke (like me) could react in an emotional way to the obvious trick of the examiner, rather than to the possibility of having been found lying by the machine, and it would be decided that I was a smoker. Not that I really cared for this crappy company, as single kid with no responsibilities whatever, but I thought of the person next in line with 4 kids to feed.

The questions continued after the examiner started to smoke with me in his office. I thought that this was pretty much the end of the line for me, so I sort of relaxed while he finished his smoke in my face and asked me questions about my mom's maiden name and my birthday. Next thing he does is he asks a question about whether I had falsified my employment application in any way. I think that this was their method to eliminate union organizers, who might hide their job history. I think federal law prevents companies from discriminating against union employees and hiring those that have belonged to unions, so the question was probably an end-around of the federal law. It didn't apply to me in any case, so I could answer the question truthfully--I wasn't an AFL-CIO field organizer. But what stunned me about this was that this was a new question, not at all on the list.

I was really cranked at the examiner, the retired Dallas cop. I called the company the next day to ask them how the polygraph went, expecting them to tell me to get lost, and they said to come in and start work. I was shocked again, because I glanced at the needle after the second trickey-poo of the retired lieutenant (something you aren't supposed to do; what the hell--he lied to me!) and saw that my GSR flew practically off the chart after a spike when he started smoking.

In psychology, the GSR is practically shunned as a physiological signal because of its wildly unpredictable responses. We used it, heart rate, and strain guages when I worked in the bio-psych lab at Berkeley. Everyone agreed that if our results hung on GSR, we were bogus. I guess guys have gone on to the gas chamber because of it, though. Too bad! Welcome to the USA.

I worked for a couple of days at the place, getting up at 4AM to be at work two hours later. I had two bosses, one I felt more comfortable with. I decided to ask the *other one* how the lie detector worked out. He said "OK, but there was some deception". I guess he thought that I'd deny it, but I just said, "Yes, there was." And that was it. He looked at me kind of surprised, and I just looked back at him. I did OK on the job, didn't smoke, and actually fixed a lot of stuff for them, leaving after a year or so for more pay and humane hours.

Another story, shorter: I knew a guy who lied through and through on a polygraph test and came out squeaky clean. What he did was to repeat to himself over and over "My mother's maiden name is Smith". That ruse gave him something to concentrate on, something monotonous, and he never lost baseline while they asked him if thought that labor unions were a good thing: "No" (flatline).

If I was on a jury, I'd never accept any polygraph evidence. How do you know what role the examiner played in generating the results?

Just my two cents.

and email Ron


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