Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The polygraph as applied: Are we focusing on technology at the expense of everything else that works?

By David S. Prescott, LICSW, Kieran McCartan, Ph.D., & Alissa Ackerman, Ph.D.

Nothing divides the professional and academic community who work in the field of sexual abuse quite like the polygraph. It is a debate that has gone on internationally for decades. A fascinating wrinkle in policy and the law recently came to the authors’ attention. In at least one state in the USA, there is a policy holding that people on probation cannot be sent back to prison for failing a polygraph examination; which makes sense given the status of the research around the polygraph and its admissibility in court. However, in this state, the same people can be sent back to prison if the examiner believes they have deliberately manipulated the results of the test. This has resulted in at least one examiner expressing certainty that many of his examinees have tried to influence the results, with many of them becoming incarcerated because of the examiner’s belief. Which highlights the main issue that the polygraph faces, that there are a multitude of different audiences (public, judiciary, professionals, academics, etc) all with different attitudes, experiences, evidence bases and strongly held views around it.

We want to be clear that this is more a problem of how professionals use or even abuse the power that they have over clients/examinees than it is about the polygraph itself, although empirically separating the effects of the polygraph from the examiner may be more complicated than many would think. The good news is that the Department of Corrections in that state is having a fresh look at its policies. The bad news is the context of professionals believing in their approach to the detriment of their clients. In some cases, one wonders how much deception by the examiner in the process is acceptable given the potential costs and lack of truly informed consent. These kinds of ethical questions certainly exist elsewhere, but rarely get the attention they deserve with vulnerable populations such as those for whom basic liberties are in the balance.

To put all of this into perspective, it can be useful to review what research has shown time and again: Punishment on its own neither reduces risk nor deters crime. While many questions about treatment remain debatable, people who complete treatment programs emerge at lower risk. Community supervision can also further reduce risk, and yet there is still no credible evidence that the polygraph, as currently applied, is improving outcomes, except in the opinions of its adherents.

This, in turn leads to further questions. When we apply the polygraph as described above, with examiners being able to send people to prison so easily, at what point are we not only interfering with methods that would promote community safety, but also denying justice? (as a side note, it is important to note that others in our field, including therapists, can also wield undue negative influence under the wrong conditions).

We then need to turn to other questions, such as what our goals actually are? Are we using the available methods to reduce risk? Build better lives? Assist those who have been abused? Or continue the punishment? Our belief is that punishment is punishment and rehabilitation is rehabilitation, and that when we confuse the two, neither can be entirely effective.

Finally, there is a real question of the polygraph’s best use. Does a sexual history polygraph really provide as much information as one might hope or is an examination into whether someone is basically following the rules help them – and the community – more. Do other methods, such as polygraphing people on their thoughts and fantasies simply muddy the waters through a belief that one’s fantasies equals their future behavior”?

Additionally, we would also encourage a consideration of how the polygraph is used internationally. While the polygraph is not necessarily an example of American exceptionalism, it might as well be because most other countries internationally do not use the polygraph in the same way, with the same frequency or with it having the same impact in the criminal justice system as in the USA. For example, in the UK the polygraph was only introduced in 2014 for high risk individuals, it is by no means used with all people that have committed a sexual offence, and is not admissible in court. Whereas in other countries, like Australia, Israel, Sweden and New Zealand (to name a few) the polygraph is not used with individuals that have committed a sexual offence.

Unfortunately, recent dialog has focused more on choosing sides – for and against the polygraph – than sorting through the various issues and balancing them against the human rights of each client or examinee. We must keep in mind, in our desire to discover the truth and seek answers from those that commit sexual abuse, that the consequences of false positive (as well as the resulting conviction and related outcomes) can be significant for victims and the accused.

Perhaps before we can answer questions about the polygraph, it is better that we return to the basic questions of why we do this work and what all our science tells us about the way people become safer and grow beyond their traumatic experiences.


  1. You fail to mention the ONE state in which the offender can be sent back based on if the polygrapher indicates countermeasures..... what state would this be?

  2. If ATSA really does "promote evidence based practice" as claimed in the right margin on this page, then they theoretically should be promoting the removal of polygraphy in the treatment/punishment (not always two different things) of former offenders until the scientific reliability is acceptable rather than suggesting a need to figure out how to make it work.

  3. The polygraph is pseudoscience. It cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the polygraph is 100% accurate. We are being too kind to polygraph operators by keeping them employed. The hoax and snake oil is okay for beauty products. This is by far too critical and requires stoic diligence. The polygraph is an all encompassing example of how human beings are treated with far less respect than animals.

  4. George Deitchman, PhDOctober 3, 2018 at 1:15 PM

    This is for those who have NOT made their minds up about the use of polygraph in the treatment of sex offenders. There is a vocal group within ATSA who have made their minds up and are pushing to restrict/eliminate the use of polygraphs, first with adolescents and now with adults. Most of the criticism seems to be from those who have little first hand knowledge or experience with polygraph testing.

    For our part, we have used polygraphs in our program since ~1990 when I heard Jan Hindman say, “If you’re not using polygraph testing, you’re not doing SO tx.” I wasn’t sure, but experience has shown, the guys we treat are often not honest unless given this extra incentive. Since we started doing testing, our clients have take over 8800 maintenance tests, over 100 specific incident tests, and over 1100 sexual history polygraphs. While occasionally people fail and don’t make further admissions, almost all do pass though sometimes it takes several attempts and further disclosures. In general the sexual histories show 3-10x more offenses than originally “voluntarily” revealed, and while many times it’s just “more of the same,” sometimes there is very significant other unknown offending which is important to address clinically. When we’ve asked clients to give feedback about the polygraph testing, the comments have been: 1) I wouldn’t have been honest without the test, and 2) I am glad I can show I am doing well. We have never used a polygraph result as the reason for terminating someone from treatment. The testing often gives us an indication there may be an issue, and we and the PO can look into it further. So I encourage those who are keeping an open mind, or who use polygraph, to know you are not alone. As I’ve said to David Prescott in the past, we need to do the research about its benefits to treatment and reduced recidivism first, rather than try to ban it before that.

    Another point brought up in this article was the idea that a polygraph examiner (somewhere?) testified in court that the person was not cooperative with the polygraph testing. I recently heard a lawyer discussing this very issue. The legal principle “mens rea” deals with the guilty person’s state of mind. If a bomb goes off and the accused is found to be doing web searches about how to build homemade bombs, this web searching is admissible evidence. Likewise, if you’re required to take a polygraph test, and you are not cooperative with that testing procedure, that may be admissible in court. We are not lawyers, the man was in a legal process, the polygraph examiner may have testified and the court chose to accept that as admissible evidence. Of course there may be much more to the case, but to use that as a jumping off point to attack polygraph testing, may be unfair.

    Once again, if you do polygraph testing in your treatment program, and it is done fairly and professionally, as I’m sure most are, then you are not alone. To sum up: Research First, Decisions Later.

    George Deitchman, PhD
    Private Practice