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Polygraph On Television

By R. Michael Martin - Owner, Global Polygraph Network

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From 1996 to 2002 I was known as "The Lie Detector Guy" because I made hundreds of appearances on U.S. and International television shows as a polygraph expert. My experience working with these shows has literally given me a "back stage pass" into the inner workings of television shows and how polygraph is generally used.

The exams I conducted for these shows were absolutely real, but that didn't stop producers from suggesting that they wanted a particular outcome of a test. I also learned a lot from producers who have told me things like "Well, so-and-so examiner told us he could do our exams for $100 each and they would only take 20 minutes." Unfortunately, those are not real polygraphs. My average exam took about 90 minutes.

Most people obtain their polygraph "knowledge" from watching television shows... reality shows, court shows, talk shows, dramas. In most cases these exams are staged for the cameras, producers and the audience, and are NOT REAL POLYGRAPHS. Here are some things you should know about polygraphs and why they are often not reliable when done for television:

  • Polygraph exams can not be done in front of an audience.
  • Polygraph exams must be done in a controlled environment with no distractions
  • Polygraph accuracy drops as you add more questions (there is usually a limit of 3 to 4 relevant questions permitted per exam)
  • Polygraph answers are limited to "yes" and "no" (narrative answers are not allowed)
  • Polygraph questions are spread out so that reactions have time to dissipate from the previous question (the average time between questions should be 20 to 25 seconds)
  • Movement by the examinee causes distortions with the test results (if the examinee is moving around or talking during the exam, reliable data can not be collected)
  • Polygraph exams must be done at least 3 times before a decision can be rendered (each question must be asked at least 3 separate times during the procedure)
  • Polygraph exams take 60 to 90 minutes or longer if done correctly (most TV shows will not allow that much time for an exam)
  • Polygraph questions must be objective - about facts - not about opinions or feelings
  • Surprise questions are not permitted (all questions are reviewed before the test)

Are polygraph tests on television real? Sometimes they are, but most of the time they are not.

When a highly qualified examiner conducts polygraphs for television, the exams are done off-camera before the show and can take several hours each. The examiner may then re-enact a small portion of the exam for the audience, so what you see is never an actual polygraph. Unfortunately, most so-called examiners working for television provide 20 minute exams, ask a dozen questions, and give results that are no more accurate than flipping a coin. Any producer who actually cares about the quality of the test and the results will allow the examiner to spend sufficient time with the person tested (up to several hours) and will limit the number of questions to three or less (per exam) to maintain overall accuracy. Most producers are only interested in getting a test done in the shortest amount of time and the smallest budget possible. Don't believe everything you see on television, and don't expect an examiner to provide a test like you see on television. That is not reality.

EXPOSING "THE MOMENT OF TRUTH"

Fox TV's game show "The Moment of Truth" aired in the United States in 2011-12. While this show may have been entertaining to some, the polygraph aspect of the show had no validity whatsoever. [read more]

Questions? Contact to Michael Martin at info@polytest.org