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The Oft-Dismissed Polygraph Test Is Finding New Life in the Age of #MeToo

They're debunked by science and largely inadmissible in court, but polygraph testers insist that they're still legit — and highly relevant to conflicts involving sexual assault and harassment

Oded Gelfer spent 30 years working for Israeli’s intelligence force, learning how to interrogate people as part of counter-terrorism and espionage missions that he still can’t talk about. But what he does enjoy discussing is the art of what’s referred to as “human intelligence,” the process of gathering intel on someone through in-person contact. “Over so many years, I gained an understanding of body language, how people talk, how people react. It’s sometimes more like a hunch,” he says with a laugh, his Israeli accent still intact. “I’ve lost a lot of hair over this.”

The one unique piece of tech he saw again and again in all those years of interrogations was the polygraph. The lie detector, as it’s known, was trotted out during pressure situations when someone had something to prove. It records blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and skin conductivity through a combination of sensors, which spit out a readout of squiggly lines that depicts the examinee’s physiological response to questions. The idea is that attempts at deception come with certain bodily tells — tells that only an experienced polygraph examiner can interpret through a lot of white noise.

Fifteen years ago, Gelfer decided to become one himself, attending polygraph school and channeling the human intelligence skills he had honed in the field. Since then, he’s administered thousands of tests in his Beverly Hills practice — and interest in using polygraphs continues to surge despite decades of controversy, a lack of acceptance from the broader scientific community and the fact that polygraph results are largely inadmissible in court trials around the country.

And yet, Gelfer often works with couples who fight over infidelity, or interpersonal cases in which one person accuses another of, for instance, stealing a valuable item. But maybe most surprising is the fact that he’s noticed an uptick of people reaching out to prove they’re telling the truth about sexual assaults and misconduct. “There are a lot of #MeToo-type clients. These are very complicated cases, especially when it involves celebrities. And it’s usually the victims that try to come in,” Gelfer says. “It’s a very emotional process. These are very long tests, because you really need to unravel and hear the story from beginning to end.”

It’s usually female victims who come to him with stories of abuse before going public, he says, though he also works with domestic violence and sexual assault within families. Sometimes the results are used to help shape a criminal defense or convince a detective to keep pursuing a case. Other times, the results are just for one person or a family, to serve as some small piece of proof that an objective truth exists, no matter what anyone says.

Though the public perception may be that polygraph tests are outdated and inaccurate, Americans submit to an estimated 2.5 million of them each year, and the $2 billion industry doesn’t show signs of slowing down any time soon. The most common use may be for screening potential employees for law enforcement agencies (about three-quarters of urban police and sheriff’s departments use a polygraph) and the federal government. But the polygraph has been thrust into the spotlight in the past year for a series of high-profile test cases, notably when Brett Kavanaugh sexual assault accuser Christine Ford released the results of her polygraph that showed she was “not deceptive” with allegations that Kavanaugh forcibly groped her at a high school party. (It was no small observation from his critics that Kavanaugh, once a cheerleader for the polygraph test, refused to take one himself.)

On the other hand, the polygraph also has been leveraged by men in a bid to prove their innocence when presented with accusations of sexual harassment and assault. Russell Simmons took a polygraph and insisted the results proved he didn’t assault model Keri Khaligi, even challenging her to take one, too. A Colorado state representative trotted out his polygraph results as proof that he didn’t sexually harass multiple women, although critics pointed out flaws in the questioning. Actor Jeremy Piven, facing eight accusers, took a polygraph. So did Alabama politician Roy Moore. Most recently, it was Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax in the news with video footage of him wearing the polygraph sensors, in response to two women who said he assaulted them in college and in 2004.

So for now, the polygraph sits at an awkward precipice: It’s widely criticized by the scientific community, but held up as a greatly effective tool by its biggest advocates. It’s not allowed in the vast majority of criminal or civil trials, yet can change how a case unfurls behind the scenes. And to talk to the polygraph’s proponents is to learn that the test is less about the machine and far more about the examiner.

As Lou Rovner, a leading polygraph expert who runs his own practice in L.A., puts it: “Everything from the way that someone deals with an examinee, the way the issues are framed for the test, the character and quality of the interaction between the two people in the testing situation, whether the questions are properly worded and conceived, whether the testing procedure is followed exactly, there are many, many, many steps to conducting a polygraph test. Every one of them has to be done right. There may be 40, 50 different ways that a polygraph test can be conducted improperly. There can’t be any corners cut.”

The polygraph was created in 1921 by a California cop and psychologist, John Larson, using research from psychologists Vittorio Benussi and William Marston on the physiological effects of lying — namely, breathing, pulse and blood pressure, measured in real time by a machine the size of a typewriter. More sophisticated rigs in the middle of the century added sensors to gauge conductivity on the skin, but the basics of the machine has largely remained unchanged since, save for a shift from paper rolls to digital screens in the 1980s.

Even the method of questioning hasn’t changed much. The most common tactic is the Control Question Test, in which you’re asked a series of stressful questions that you’re likely to lie about (like “Have you lied to an authority figure?” or “Have you ever stolen from a friend?”). The literal answers to these questions are irrelevant to the polygraph examiner; instead, your reaction while answering them is used as a baseline comparison for the “relevant” questions at hand (“Did you grope them on the night of April 1st?”).

This type of polygraph testing grew common during the latter half of the 20th century, with employers often forcing their workers to take the test under suspicion they’d stolen something or acted fraudulently. That went out the window in 1989 with the passage of the Employee Polygraph Protection Act (dubbed “a holiday gift to working people” by the American Civil Liberties Union), and several studies in the 1990s and early 2000s continued to cast more doubt on the veracity of polygraphs.

Yet experts like Gelfer and Rovner continue to press the issue, stating that the accuracy of a properly administered polygraph test is well over 90 percent. Generally, the tests are more conclusive than eyewitness accounts, expert testimony and even some forms of DNA evidence, Rovner claims, and he can rattle off a long list of examples in which he helped a client glean the truth. “I actually worked with a rather famous person, I can’t tell you who it was, who had something like $180,000 in jewelry stolen from their house,” he says. “His attorneys called me and asked if I could do a series of tests. It turned out that his head of security was the one who stole it all.”

Rovner is serious about the parameters of the test, and notes that one of the most important factors is that actual stakes exist for passing or failing the test. He swiftly rejected my request to try a polygraph myself, dismissing it as a waste of time unless I was willing to take on questions that could jeopardize my career or relationships. Both he and Gelfer stressed that crafting an accurate test was a process that took time and an expert’s touch. “You need to be able to read suspicions about the examinee, and build observations into the test questions. Are they going to try to manipulate you? If so, you need a mitigation plan,” Gelfer observes. “False positives, where an honest person is found deceptive, happen. False negatives happen too, though less frequently. In any case, the polygraph examiner is 90 percent of the test.”

That’s a huge observation, given that polygraph examiners often don’t need licenses to operate around the U.S. Most polygraph schools only take six to eight weeks to complete, and even membership in the American Polygraph Association is voluntary. This is a big reason why a polygraph can be such a tricky decision for sexual assault victims, especially, and why many victim advocates recommend avoiding the test altogether. Polygraphs are often suggested by lawyers or law enforcement as a way to further “prove” a crime occurred, but there lurks the implication that not taking it might say something damaging about the victim’s story.

Sexual assault victims who are highly emotional or have traumatic triggers can also end up having faulty test results and lingering negative effects. “The research on survivors’ experiences disclosing sexual assault has been clear on the harm of doubting survivors’ stories or asking them to prove their honesty: survivors who are disbelieved or whose credibility is questioned experience more symptoms of post-traumatic stress than survivors who are believed, even months later,” according to Emily Dworkin, a senior fellow of psychology at the University of Washington.

In general, all kinds of people who submit to a polygraph are left with the feeling that the test has holes. Peter Krantz, a police officer in Southern California, had his first polygraph experience when he was 18 years old, as part of the qualification to be a police cadet. The pre-exam questionnaire had 300 questions, which made him believe that the polygraph itself was going to be equally grueling. Krantz was relieved to find that the actual polygraph exam only had about 30 queries. What bothered him was the way the test was designed to intimidate. “Just the idea of a polygraph exam can get people to admit information, at least in law enforcement. They get the idea that if they admit something, they can apply another time, but if they get caught lying, that’s trouble,” Krantz, 32, tells me. “It’s a giant smoke-and-mirrors show, and a very effective one, even though I don’t believe it’s scientific.”

Case in point: Krantz recalls how the polygraph examiners in two subsequent tests for police jobs tried to hammer him on subjects he wasn’t lying about. The most recent was on a question about domestic violence, which he denies has ever come up in his life. “The guy was basically claiming my stress indicators were up for this subject, but they’re playing games. I told him he was 100 percent wrong, and he got angry at me. He got mad,” he says. “He got up and left the room to talk to my background investigator in the next room. I mean, he basically tried to torpedo my job chances over it.”

Krantz is one of the lucky ones, given all the threads on online forums of people lamenting how they were “caught” lying by the polygraph despite claiming that they told the truth. And some data taken from local law enforcement agencies seem to back the idea that human bias can play a disproportionate role in polygraph outcomes. A Wired investigation, for example, found that while some examiners with the Washington State Patrol failed less than 20 percent of applicants, others rejected nearly half. One polygraph examiner failed applicants due to concerns about a question on beastiality at 10 times the frequency of his peers. Another was twice as likely to fail someone over a question about child pornography. “Honestly, my takeaway is that you can, without much difficulty, always find a reason to fail someone in a polygraph,” Krantz says. “I know departments use it as just another way to remove someone they don’t want to hire.”

It’s no wonder then that for every professional polygraph advocate like Rovner or Gelfer, there’s a fierce critic waiting to state that polygraphs are pseudoscientific. That includes George Maschke, the author of The Lie Behind the Lie Detector and founder of the site, who first began his advocacy after failing an FBI polygraph and has since crafted an in-depth resource of public records and testimonials related to flawed polygraph testing. He’s gone as far as to review and critique Rovner’s court testimony, and actively works to help people “beat” polygraphs.

Then there’s Doug Williams, a former detective with the Oklahoma City Police Department who administered polygraphs from 1972 to 1979. He’s spent nearly 40 years since protesting the use of polygraphs and has trained thousands of people to beat the exam, even serving a two-year prison sentence after being caught by federal investigators. “The polygraph is not a test. It’s an intense interrogation. The only part the polygraph plays is to frighten and intimidate a person into making a confession or admission,” Williams says in a video. “It doesn’t record truth or deception. There is no such thing as a ‘lying reaction.’ It records nervousness… the more developed your conscience, the more likely you are to flunk the test. The more hardened your conscience, the better your chances of passing.”

His method of beating the test is simple: Think calm thoughts when the examiner asks a “control” question intended to cause doubt and spike nerves, and think scary thoughts when facing a factual “relevant” question. Williams, Maschke and others say this effectively flips the usual emotional responses, obscuring any analysis of the chart.

This kind of talk inspires a scoff from Rovner. “Just because you’ve read about this stuff and internalized the ideas doesn’t mean that you can now master the physical aspects of it, and that’s what we’re talking about in polygraph. You can’t beat it. I’ll be honest with you, I probably know as much about polygraph testing as anybody in the world. I don’t think I could beat one, and I mean that.”

Despite Rovner’s protestations, the bulk of research suggesting polygraph tests are unreliable is hard to ignore. But perhaps Rovner and Gelfer are right that their talent, knowledge and experience makes them different than the average polygraph examiner — and that human touch will remain a critical point of contention, even as new technology attempts to erase it from the craft of lie detecting.

That’s how we get to something like EyeDetect, a new eye-scanning tool that claims to eliminate the human error of polygraphs and shorten the test, to boot. It’s cheap compared to a traditional polygraph test, and already being contracted for use by foreign governments, even as experts warn that technology may be even less reliable, and more biased, than regular polygraphs. There’s also been research on how brain scanning could be used to catch our lies, and the results in early tests seem to be extremely accurate, but also extremely easy to manipulate (sometimes literally with a wiggle of a toe).

Neither Rovner nor Gelfer are worried about AI and technology taking over their jobs for now. Gelfer, for one, says he’s confident the polygraph will continue to be used — maybe with some new sensors, but always with a human interpreting the results. It’s not easy to be responsible for unpacking people’s traumatic stories and finding a sliver of truth that both sides can believe. “There are a lot of charlatans and scammers who are not capable at polygraphs, and they can destroy people’s lives and marriages and relationships,” Gelfer warns. “This is the most dangerous thing about the job.”

The danger isn’t enough to stop people from submitting to the test, however. The problem is that, as long as polygraphs have such room for error, we’re able to debate the results even when the experts say the process is a scientific one. I ask Gelfer whether it’s difficult, after all these years, to play such a pivotal role in someone’s life over the course of a handful of hours, especially when it’s something as emotional as acknowledging sexual abuse.

I can hear him pause through the phone. “I invest a lot of myself in the most serious cases. To tell someone that their spouse is cheating on them, or that you don’t believe their story, it is a big burden,” he answers. “Especially with women [in abuse cases], you’re making sure your questions have been adjusted to the details of what happened, and how they feel. All the fights, accusations, emotions, you need to neutralize these things for the test. I’m not a therapist. But these are all important steps.”

In some ways, he says, the polygraph result is just one part of the process. In his experience, even incredulous clients soften when Gelfer stops to explain the logic of the polygraph. “I always want to leave them with something constructive. Something actionable,” he says. “I show them the chart. To me, it’s like looking into the mirror.”