I sat for a pre-employment polygraph with the Federal Bureau of Investigation clueless that two years before; the National Academy of Sciences had recommended the federal government stop using it for screening purposes because of its unreliability. I took the test with very little knowledge about it. I thought I knew all I needed to know--that it worked.
Special Agent A introduced himself in a polite, but unfriendly manner before explaining how the polygraph works and how the test would be conducted. I was only in the room a matter of minutes before he told what would be the first of many lies. He said, "the only way to fail this test is to lie to me." I trusted and believed him thinking that all I had to do was be honest and tell the truth about anything asked of me. That's exactly what I did after Agent A threatened severe consequences if I told even the most minor lie.
After the test was completed, Agent A had me move to another chair across the room. Then he pounced out of nowhere. He said that I was failing the test and he knew why as his voice rose steadily. He falsely accused me of being a regular drug user and drug dealer. I was blindsided. My mind raced, unable to comprehend what was happening. I frantically denied the accusations, but Agent A pointed his finger at me and said, "You are a liar." He went back and forth between yelling and appearing compassionate while using mind games in an effort to pressure me into admitting to things that were simply not true. For a moment I was actually tempted to give in just to put an end to the nightmare. It was such a tense, unpleasant situation. I desperately wanted it to be over, but the truth is a matter of principle with me, so I stood my ground. Agent A promised that everything would be okay if I would just admit to what he wanted. I just couldn't bring myself to do it, even if it meant losing the job. No job is worth lying over.
I confusedly repeated, "I thought these tests were supposed to be so accurate," to which he replied, "They are--machines don't lie, people do." I had been so very truthful and believed in the test's accuracy. I thought the interrogation might be some sort of test to determine how I handled pressure in tense situations, but the examiner was so worked up and angry. I didn't know what to believe. At one point, I do remember thinking that he really needed to brush up on his acting skills. I kept asking myself, how could I have been so honest about everything and failed such a reliable test? None of it made any sense.
I told Agent A that something was wrong and that we needed to repeat the test. I'd tried my best to convince him of my sincerity and truthfulness, but it was no use. After about three hours, it was finally over. There was indeed a liar in the room that day, but it wasn't me. Although it didn't feel like much at the time, at least I'd managed to walk away with my integrity intact.
The experience was devastating. I slept only an hour and a half in the 24 hours following the test. I continued having trouble sleeping and eating for several weeks; my mind constantly focused on that horrific day. Ironically, prior to the polygraph, the examiner asked me had I ever had any psychological counseling. I've never been in the position of needing any, but I probably could have used some after my experience with the polygraph. I couldn't help but think of others in weakened states of mind taking this test and how it might be affecting them.
I was eventually given a second polygraph by a different examiner. Although the experience was completely opposite, the end result was exactly the same. Another failure, after being open and honest. To his credit, Special Agent B (examiner #2) was more realistic about the polygraph's limitations and its ability to only detect reactions, not lies. However, any credibility he managed to attain was shot all to hell as he recounted word for word the exact same drug use example as the first examiner, "say, you're at a party and a marijuana cigarette is floating around..."
Later, while researching polygraph accuracy, my heart sank as I ran across the 2002 National Academy of Sciences report invalidating polygraph screening and urging the federal government to stop its use due to the test's inaccuracy and propensity to unfairly brand innocents as liars. I couldn't believe what I was reading. How could I have been so clueless and why would the government still be using a testing procedure with no scientific validity whatsoever? I'd still like to know the answer to that question.
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