Polygraph Question Design Rules

AS PRIVATE EXAMINERS, our clients often try to present us with a “laundry list” of questions they would like us to ask. We discourage this practice, primarily because of all the rules these questions must follow.  Instead, it is generally recommended to provide the examiner with “issues” the client would like to resolve and then work together with the examiner to design the best questions to help resolve that situation.  Unlike what we are shown on television, polygraph is very good at resolving important large “issues,” but it is not nearly as good at figuring out details within those issues.  Note that a person does not pass or fail individual questions on a polygraph….  They pass or fail the exam as a whole.

Due to the numerous rules which must be followed, it is NOT ADVISABLE for clients to bring in their own exam questions.  Instead, clients should prepare a list of “issues” they would like to address – in order of importance – and then work TOGETHER with the examiner to design the most appropriate questions to help resolve those issues.

If a client wants to provide their own exam questions, each question must follow the rules as outlined below.  Any questions that do not follow these rules will be excluded from their exam.

What are the rules for creating lie detector questions?  How many questions can be asked in a polygraph?  There are quite a few rules for designing proper polygraph questions.  These rules are based on psychological principles that are incorporated to give clients the most accurate results possible.  Your examiner will work with you to develop the best questions for your situation, but here are some of the basic rules for relevant question design.  The number of questions that can be asked will depend on the type of exam requested. These rules will vary somewhat depending on the type of test you are having done.  There are five basic kinds of test formats you will encounter, ranked by accuracy.  Exam formats cannot be combined – each one requires a different technique and scoring protocol.  Keep in mind that any of these exam types will take 1.5 to 2.5 hours to complete, even if only one relevant question is asked (even longer if an interpreter is used).

90 to 95% ACCURACY:  Single Issue exam – The exam is designed to resolve one target issue, is the most accurate testing format available, and is the only format that meets the Daubert standard for admissibility of scientific evidence.

85 to 95% ACCURACY:  Multi-Facet exam – The exam is designed to address a single issue by posing multiple questions about the same topic (usually a crime). A person who is deceptive to any of the questions in this type of exam is considered to be “involved in the crime.”

75 to 90% ACCURACY:  Multiple Issue exam – The exam is designed to address a maximum of four different but related questions/issues.  Unless a Statement Verification exam is used, the maximum number of relevant questions a single exam can support is FOUR (4).  If the relevant questions are unrelated, the accuracy can be as low as 75%.  If more than four related questions is needed, a second exam will have to be administered.

75 to 85% ACCURACY:  Screening exam – The exam is designed as a tool to screen job applicants, validate security clearances, for Post-Conviction Sex Offender (PCSOT) Testing, or to test for ongoing honesty in employment, government positions of trust, or in sporting competitions.

75 to 85% ACCURACY:  Statement Verification exam – The exam is designed to verify the overall truthfulness of a written statement created by the person being tested.  This format includes Therapeutic Disclosures.  This format is not usually recommended because it is the least accurate of all the available methods.

Here are some of the basic rules that apply to all exam types:

  1. All relevant polygraph questions must be about factual events – things that may or may not have occurred in the past.
  2. All polygraph questions must be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Narrative answers are not permitted. Normally, “no” answers are expected from suspects and “yes” answers are expected from victims and witnesses.
  3. The number of relevant questions affects the overall accuracy of the exam.  One question is the most accurate format, and four questions is generally considered the maximum number of relevant questions permitted (and is also the least accurate).
  4. Questions can not be subjective or ambiguous. Each question must be interpreted the same way by any person who hears it. For example, if there is a question about having “sex” with someone, the term “sex” must be defined (vaginal, oral, anal, manual, virtual, etc.)  When in doubt, specific words or phrases can be defined and agreed-upon before the exam.
  5. Lengthy questions are not permitted. A question that takes more than 6 or 7 seconds to ask (using normal speech) is too long.
  6. Intentions are not usually asked.  For example, “Did you plan to have sex with Mary when you met her?” is not a proper question, although the question “Before you met Mary, did the two of you agree to have sex when you met?” would be valid.
  7. Hypothetical or “future” questions are not permitted in relevant questions.  For example, “Do you plan to leave your wife?” is not a proper question, although “Have you taken any steps to leave your wife?” (ie. hiding assets, meeting divorce lawyers, looking for apartments) would be valid.
  8. Questions must be about what the examinee has disclosed to the examiner, not to someone else.  For example, “Did you tell your boss about everything you stole from him?” is not a proper questions, although the question “Besides what you told me, did you steal anything else from your boss?” would be valid.  All relevant disclosures must be made to the examiner first so the examiner can verify those disclosures.
  9. Questions about opinions, beliefs, emotions, or feelings, can not be used. For example, examiners can not ask if someone loves you, or if they love someone else, or if they find someone attractive.
  10. Compound (multi-part) questions are not generally used.
  11. Questions about lying are not generally used. Polygraph questions are asked in the most direct way possible. For example, we would prefer to ask “Did you steal the missing wallet?” rather than “Are you lying about stealing the missing wallet?”
  12. Avoid questions that overlap other questions.  Since polygraph results are by exam, not by question, there is no gain by asking a subset of a question.  For example, if you ask “Did you have sex with Mary in the last 10 years?” there is no gain by asking “Did you have sex with Mary last week?”
  13. Avoid using specific dates in relevant questions.  It is better to use situational time frames, such as “Since you moved to Florida” or “Last Tuesday” or “Since you and Mary agreed not to date other people.”
  14.  Avoid using legal terms in relevant questions.  For example, don’t use words such as “homicide” or “conspiracy” or “assault.”  Use more objective terminology, such as “Did you stab that man in Joe’s bar last week?”
  15.  Avoid using inflammatory terms in relevant questions.  For example, don’t use the words “rape” or “molest” or “cheat.”  Use more direct terminology, such as “Did you have sexual contact with that child?”

In a Single Issue exam, each relevant question is nearly identical, with some minor variations, but may include one related “evidence connecting” question.  If the polygraph results are to be used in a legal proceeding, you must use the most accurate and scientifically validated method available, which is the Single Issue test. Other formats (such as multiple issue tests) do not have the accuracy levels needed to be used as evidence.  This is also the only format recommended when testing a child under 18.

In a Multi-Facet exam, each relevant question will address a different aspect of the same issue.  In a theft case, for example, the relevant questions might be “Did you steal that thing?” and “Do you know who stole that thing?” and “Did you profit from the theft of that thing?”

In a Multiple Issue exam, the relevant questions should be related to one another.  Other than in Screening Exams, it is not recommended to mix issues.  It is important to note that in multiple issue exams, if a person scores poorly on one (or more) of the relevant questions, the entire exam will be considered failed.  It is no longer considered valid practice to make decisions on individual questions within an exam.

In a Screening Exam, the purpose is to verify multiple different aspects of the individual’s past behavior as part of a job application, security screening, or Post-Conviction Sex Offender (PCSOT) Testing.  This type of exam can cover such items as involvement in serious crimes, illegal drugs, assaults, job terminations, leaking information to or cooperating with foreign governments/agents, sexual contact with children, viewing pornography, unauthorized contact with children, using performance enhancing drugs, violating the rules of a fishing tournament, etc.  It is important to note that in Screening Exams, if a person scores poorly on one (or more) of the relevant questions, the entire exam will be considered “failed.”  It is no longer considered valid practice to make decisions on individual questions within an exam.

In a Statement Verification exam, the relevant questions will be about the truthfulness of the written statement provided by the examinee.  However, it remains important to include only factual elements within the Disclosure Statement.  Each element of the Statement should be numbered, so each element can be discussed and reviewed with the examiner before the exam begins.  Disclosures should include admissions and denials (see example below).  The examinee should sign and date the disclosure in the presence of the examiner.  These exams are generally considered to be the least accurate of the formats, and there is no limit to the number of elements contained in the Statement.  The only relevant question the examiner will ask on these exams is whether the Examinee has been truthful in the Disclosure (and has not omitted any relevant information).

Example of a PROPER Disclosure Statement

My name is John Smith and I have prepared this Disclosure on March 5, 2023, for the purpose of proving to my wife Mary Smith that I have not been unfaithful to her other than what I have disclosed here.  Mary and I have been married since 2003.

  1. In 2004 I received oral sex from a prostitute one time while Mary was visiting her mother.
  2. In 2005 I had sexual intercourse with a prositute three times.
  3. In 2014 I exchanged texts and emails with several women on a dating web site, but I did not meet meet any of these women in person.  Some of these communications were sexual.
  4. In 2020, I had a relationship with my co-worker Susan which lasted for two months.  We met 10 to 12 times outside of work for lunch and dinner, and had sexual intercourse at hotels 3 or 4 times.
  5. I did tell Susan on a few occasions that I loved her.
  6.  Other than noted above, I have not had sexual contact with anyone other than my wife during our marriage.

Example of an IMPROPER Disclosure Statement

  1. I love my wife and want to prove to her that I am sorry and that I plan to work on our marriage going forward.
  2. I regret the things I have done and know that these things hurt her very much.  I did not do these things to hurt her.  I was weak and was seeking attention that I didn’t feel I was getting at home.
  3. I thought about leaving my wife a few times.
  4. I flirted with a WalMart cashier because she was pretty, but I would never have done anything sexually with her.
  5. I have told my wife about every sexual thing I have done with other women during our marriage.

The bottom line is that you will work together with your examiner to determine the most appropriate type of exam for your situation.  We are here to help.

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