Polygraph Does it Work Research Paper

Pages: 6 (1924 words)  ·  Style: APA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Criminal Justice

¶ … Polygraph Testing

Polygraphs have fascinated law enforcement members ever since they were first proposed, seemingly offering a silver bullet for uncovering dishonesty in suspects and possible law enforcement applicants, and it remains wildly popular among United States law enforcement agencies to this day. However, the polygraph has been shown to be unreliable, failing to catch dishonesty while delivering false positives incriminating honest people, and in fact the polygraph is so unreliable that it is regarded as pseudoscience by the respected scientific community, something fit to intimidate suspects or otherwise encourage confessions but which has no more substantial ability to detect dishonesty in suspects than the average person. By examining critical research regarding the effectiveness of the polygraph in different contexts, this study demonstrates that the polygraph is ultimately ineffective in criminal investigations, and although it has seen some effective use in related fields, the continued reliance on the polygraph by law enforcement agencies is misguided and ultimately harmful.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Research Paper on Polygraph Does it Work Assignment

Before pointing out the evidence demonstrating the polygraph's ineffectiveness in criminal investigations, it will be useful to briefly examine why it came to so well-loved by dangerously credulous law enforcement agencies in the first place. As Snook (2008, p. 1211,) notes, "within policing there is widespread promotion and use of questionable psychologically rooted practices as well as the acceptance of erroneous beliefs about police work," such as a reliance on the polygraph among other less commonly discussed methods like "hypnotic interviewing, [..] criminal profiling, critical incident stress debriefing, and detecting of deception solely on the basis of nonverbal cues, which is coupled with a serious misunderstanding regarding the nature of "confession evidence, eyewitness memory, lineup identification procedures, police behavior, and criminal behavior." The appeal of the polygraph should be obvious; it reduces the need for further investigation or collection or evidence, because it purports to objectively demonstrate when people are lying, thus precluding any real work on the part of the investigating officer (other than administering, or more likely, paying someone else to administer the pseudoscientific test.) The reason it remains popular even after its inefficacy has been proven may of course be traced to the same stubborn, inbred reluctance to criticism or change even in the face of overwhelming evidence that has caused essentially ever major problem in policing over the last thirty years, but more specifically, this failure to adapt to policing standards to objective reality may be seen as part of "a growing gap between the reliance on various practices in applied domains (e.g., clinical psychology, medicine, and engineering) and the amount of empirical evidence supporting those practices," because "law enforcement does not appear to be immune to this widening scientist -- practitioner gap" (Snook, 2008, p. 1211).

In the case of law enforcement reliance on polygraphs, one may interpret the reason for this gap as a born out of the marriage between laziness and arrogance; as mentioned before, belief in the polygraph reduces the need for further investigative work, and an admission that polygraphs are nothing more than pseudoscience would require American law enforcement agencies to admit that they have been wildly and irresponsibly wrong for at least thirty to forty years. Finally, on an individual level, police officers are likely reluctant to admit that they are no better than the average person at detecting dishonesty (except, of course, when they are able to emotionally traumatize someone during interrogation), and so the supposed 'special training' required to interpret polygraph machines allows officers to pretend that they are privy to some special psychological tools for detecting deception even when this is not the case.

Although polygraphs are not admissible as evidence in the majority of courts, they still do play a large part in the post-confinement sentencing, surveillance, and control of sex offenders, such that their "application in postconviction settings became widespread in the late 1990s in relation to the monitoring and treatment of sex offenders" and furthermore:

By the early 2000s, it was estimated that polygraphy was incorporated in the supervision of sex offenders by probation and parole agencies in up to 35 states, while a 2009 survey reported that nearly 80% of adult community treatment programs in the United States and over half of institutionally based ones incorporated polygraphy into treatment. (Grubin, 2010, pp. 448-449).

Although advocates of polygraph testing for sex offenders attempt to differentiate between the use of polygraphs in different contexts, noting that evaluations of sex offenders often include "fuller and more accurate information about offenders' histories and increased disclosure regarding previous victims, types of offenses, age of onset of sexually deviant behavior, continued masturbation to deviant fantasies, and engagement in so called high-risk behavior" (Grubin, p. 449) as a result of administering a polygraph, more comprehensive studies have determined that even in these instances while:

There is reasonable evidence supporting polygraph use in some areas of risk assessment […] the vast majority of studies suffers from serious confounds that should be taken into account by professionals who use the polygraph as a standard practice in sexual offender risk assessment and management. (Gannon, Beech, & Ward, 2008, p. 29).

Thus, even in the one context in which polygraphs have been shown to be effective, the extent of their accuracy and effectiveness in actually determining dishonesty remains in doubt. Instead, evaluating sex offenders with polygraphs encourages them to tell the truth in the first place and acts as a kind of deterrent for certain behaviors, such that the success of polygraphs in regards to sex offenders may not be taken as evidence for the accuracy of claims made by polygraph advocates in general.

Having understood the underlying motivations which precipitate the ongoing acceptance of the polygraph as a viable crime-fighting tool, as well as demonstrating how the one area in which polygraphs have been shown to be useful nonetheless does not demonstrate their overall effectiveness, this study may now highlight to the point of exhaustion precisely how useless polygraphs are in determining dishonesty by looking at two reports published exactly twenty years apart but reaching nearly the same conclusions. The first report is entitled "Scientific Validity of Polygraph Testing: A Research Review and Evaluation," and was put together by the nonpartisan Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in order to determine the actual efficacy of polygraphs just as they were becoming more popular in the public discourse. The OTA investigated studies of polygraph use in a variety of contexts, and found that in "specific-issue or specific-incident" applications of the polygraph, that is, in instances where a polygraph is used "as part of an investigation (usually conducted by law enforcement or private security officers) of a specific situation in which a criminal act has been alleged to have, or in fact has, taken place," "the polygraph detects deception at a rate better than chance, but with error rates that could be considered significant" (OTA, 1983). For example, the polygraph was found to be anywhere from 34% to 100% successful in determining deception, and anywhere from 32% to 100% in determining honesty. Polygraph advocates point to the fact the upper end of this bound is 100%, thus indicating at least some effectiveness in determining the truth, but the results vary so widely that no meaningful, scientifically accurate determination of success could be determined.

Almost exactly twenty years later, in 2003, the National Research Council conducted a meta-study entitled "THE POLYGRAPH AND LIE DETECTION" in order to determine, once and for all, the effectiveness of the polygraph and especially its use in law enforcement. The first thing the researchers found was that "the evidence [regarding polygraphs] is scanty and scientifically weak," and furthermore, that "almost a century of research in scientific psychology and physiology provides little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy" (NRC, 2003, p. 212). The NRC report came to three particularly damning conclusions regarding the polygraph. Firstly, it found that "the theoretical rationale for the polygraph is quite weak, especially in terms of differential fear, arousal, or other emotional states that are triggered in response to relevant or comparison questions." Secondly, it noted somewhat disturbingly that "research on the polygraph has not progressed over time in the manner of a typical scientific field" and thus "has not accumulated knowledge or strengthened its scientific underpinnings in any significant manner," because it "has proceeded in relative isolation from related fields of basic science and has benefited little from conceptual, theoretical, and technological advances in those fields that are relevant to the psychophysiological detection of deception." This should be especially embarrassing to the polygraph advocates, considering this research comes twenty years after a previous government study demonstrating the need for more effective methods of analyzing and administering polygraph tests. Finally, "the inherent ambiguity of the physiological measures used in the polygraph suggest that further investments in improving polygraph technique and interpretation will bring only modest improvements in accuracy" (p. 213).

Even what scant evidence there is for the accuracy and efficacy of polygraph testing is tainted by examiner bias and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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