Any consideration of polygraph testing should begin with the realization that polygraph examinations are a serious matter. They are not a game or something to experience, just to say you did it. Therefore, you should understand why it is that you are taking the examination, as well as how the outcome will affect you. In the United States, there are two primary reasons a person would be asked to take a polygraph exam.
Many organizations utilize the polygraph as part of an investigation regarding some specific event. (Notice that we say "part of". The polygraph is used as an investigative or forensic tool. Seldom is it or should it be the entire investigation.) The majority of federal, state and municipal law enforcement agencies in the United States use polygraph to support investigation of criminal matters. A suspect or person of interest, who denies involvement in the matter under investigation, may be asked to take a polygraph examination as a means of assessing his or her denials. A witness or informant may be asked to submit to a polygraph for the purpose of assessing the information he or she has provided. In some cases, even a victim of crime may be asked to demonstrate veracity to prevent the wrongful prosecution of an innocent person. In addition to law enforcement agencies, many businesses such as insurance companies, auditing firms and financial institutions utilize the polygraph as an investigative tool. Because attorneys regularly deal with controversial matters, they often turn to the polygraph to assist their efforts.
The second common use of the polygraph is in the support of security and personnel screening programs. Many law enforcement agencies such as municipal police departments, state police and federal agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and United States Secret Service utilize the polygraph as a component of their personnel screening process. The objective is to enhance the probability that the individuals selected for these positions of trust will be of high integrity. Many agencies of the United States Intelligence community utilize polygraph testing as one component in their security clearance process. Some include the polygraph as part of the initial selection methods. Others use it as part of ongoing security maintenance, and some use it for both purposes.
Each type of examination, the specific investigation and the screening exam, has different characteristics and features. The potential impact on the examinee is also very different. Therefore, if you consider taking a polygraph examination, you should understand the type of exam you will be administered and the possible impact on your personal circumstances. In some cases a person may receive a positive benefit from the examination, while in other circumstances the potential negative impact can be very significant. A person should know how the polygraph examination is likely to affect them before she or he agrees to undergo the process. This means an individual should have a good idea as to the issue(s) or subject matter of the exam. The person should assess his or her ability and willingness to be thorough and truthful regarding the issue(s) of the exam.
Suppose a law enforcement agency asked you to submit to a polygraph examination because you are a suspect or person of interest in a particular crime. The APA encourages citizens to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. However, be aware that if you are involved in the matter under investigation and have concealed that fact from investigators, your deception will almost certainly be identified. If you have committed the crime you might want to seek legal counsel before proceeding with the polygraph. If you have not been involved in the matter under investigation, there probably are very strong reasons for you to proceed with the examination. Nevertheless, it is wise to confirm the issue(s) of the exam in advance. It is also a good idea to obtain some assurances as to how the polygraph results will be utilized. Will truthful results significantly lower you on the suspect list? What is the benefit or payoff to you for the time and effort of submitting to the exam? Similar questions should be addressed with entities such as an employer or an insurance company that might request that you submit to polygraph testing.
If your attorney is advising that you take the polygraph examination, you probably do not need to concern yourself with such issues. Generally, it is the responsibility of legal counsel to ensure your interests are protected. However, you should have an understanding as to the primary issue of the exam so you can review the matter with your counsel in advance.
You may also be offered a polygraph examination in relation to a job application or federal security clearance. Such exams are referred to as screening exams. Screening exams are different in several ways from the specific issue exam. First, screening exams address several issues as opposed to a specific matter of investigation. Secondly, the issues of a screening exam tend to be broad in scope and cover a variety of possible activities. For example, a law enforcement agency may use the exam to address issues such as major thefts/fraud, physical abuse of others, and illegal drug use.
If you decide to submit to the screening polygraph examination, you are encouraged to consider to the following advice. First be aware that exams may be long (2-3 hours). It is very important that you remain alert and involved for the entire session. So, prior to the exam get a good night's sleep and arrive well rested for the procedure. Be sure to eat a meal, and take care of personal affairs so you won't have any outside distractions during the time of your examination. If you are using a medication, adhere to your normal practice and physician's advice. Most medications are used to maintain an individual's good health, which is desirable for polygraph testing. Expect to experience some nervousness: this is normal for everyone. Contrary to a common misperception, nervousness and anxiety will not cause a person to "fail" the test. Moreover, truthful examinees generally report that they become much less nervous as the examination proceeds.
The polygraph examiner will begin the session with a detailed explanation of the procedure, followed by a discussion of the examination issue(s). This discussion period is very important. You should be certain that you understand exactly what the polygraph examiner is asking of you. If the examiner does not explain issues to your complete understanding, tell the examiner and request further explanation. In responding to examiner's inquiries be as accurate and thorough as you are able. If you are uncertain about a topic, make that clear to the examiner.
After the discussion the testing phase will begin. The examiner will start by attaching non-intrusive sensors to your body for measuring physiological activity. Before the testing commences, the examiner will review with you each test question. Listen carefully to ensure that you understand the questions and are able to respond fully with a simple "Yes" or "No".
The examiner will also give you instructions for taking the examination: sit motionless and in an upright yet relaxed position; do not become rigid or stiff; do not try to do anything to help the examiner or to alter your body's normal activity. You should remember that you must completely cooperate with the examination process for it to go well for you. Disregarding the examiner's instructions may cause the examination to go longer, and is likely to be included in the examiner's report.
Unfortunately, some truthful persons make the mistake of trying to manipulate or influence the recordings. These strategies are sometimes recommended by websites and books to help produce a favorable polygraph result, but in reality it is bad advice. Think of it this way: if a person is seeking a job that demands honesty and integrity, what conclusion would a hiring department or agency have of a candidate who tries to cheat on one of its selection processes? Many, perhaps most, deceptive examinees attempt to manipulate or defeat the polygraph examination. Unlike truthful candidates, they have nothing to lose. And, except under some narrow circumstances, their efforts are ineffectual and often even facilitate the identification of their lies. A truthful examinee who uses the same strategies, however, risks being misidentified as a liar trying to conceal his deception. This does not serve the interests of the truthful examinee, who may be disqualified for trying to manipulate the test, nor of the employer who might miss the opportunity to hire a qualified candidate.