how to pass a polygraph
January 15, 2007 10:24 AM   Subscribe

Ok, here are the facts: i) I really want this job ii) The company administers polygraphs for shithead reasons Is there any way I can learn to pass this thing?

I know how MeFi feels about questions regarding illegal conduct and I don't blame the community one bit. File this under dubious-ethics-filter if you must. It's dishonest, but I don't believe that it's illegal.

I'm concerned with the practicalities here.
I know, from someone who works there, that this company administers polygraphs on all prospective personnel and that they ask about history of drug use. I know from that same person that even light, distant-past drug use invalidates the candidate. (there's some story here, but I don't know what it is) I have a history of light, distant-past drug use. (a bit of marijuana; mushrooms twice)

I REALLY want this job, and I would do right by the company if they would just give me a shot. Which they won't as it stands. So how can I pass this thing so I can have the opportunity to prove myself a worthy employee?

Does biofeedback really work? Anything else? I've reviewed past AskMe questions on the subject and none of them cover this specifically. I could have up to maybe 8 months to prepare. Can you help me?
posted by anonymous to Science & Nature (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The first place to go.
posted by mediareport at 10:31 AM on January 15, 2007

Make sure that they're legally allowed to administer the test. Few non-governmental employers are. Read here for more details from the Department of Labor.
posted by piro at 10:31 AM on January 15, 2007

How to Cheat a Polygraph Test (Lie Detector) from WikiHow.
posted by ifranzen at 10:33 AM on January 15, 2007

There are some suggestions here.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:34 AM on January 15, 2007

Seconding piro: it's almost impossible for a private employer to administer polygraph tests. If, as you say, it's a 'company' you're hoping to work for, then they're out of line in asking you to, and out of line in hiring/not hiring you on the basis of it.
posted by koeselitz at 10:36 AM on January 15, 2007

That is, it's illegal.
posted by koeselitz at 10:37 AM on January 15, 2007

I think anonymous is not refering to a private company, but rather to the company, as in one of the spy craft agencies.
posted by haqspan at 10:56 AM on January 15, 2007

If anon is talking about "the company," then he should read here, which suggests he's little to worry about.
posted by piro at 11:15 AM on January 15, 2007

Remember, it's not a lie if you believe it.
posted by trbrts at 11:17 AM on January 15, 2007

Is it possible that the stories you've heard a just not true? Tha people have claimed that they were eliminated for minor/distant drug use, when in fact, the drug use was major and/or recent? People sugar-coat when they tell their own stories, you know.
posted by Kololo at 11:26 AM on January 15, 2007

The simple answer, which worked in college trial-runs for me, was simply to overreact to everything. Add enough noise to render the nervousness about lying invisible.

You want to skew the "normal" level as far as you can. When they are asking the harmless questions, make yourself react in a non-harmless way.

Do this on as many levels as you can. Think to yourself "why are they asking my name, do they know something?"

Watch paranoid spy thrillers to key yourself up.

Take caffeine until you are jittery.

Deliberately squeeze muscles, as if you are tensing or nervous.

Do "kegels" during the test.

Anything to add noise will help. Do not be the tester's buddy, and do not relax.
posted by Invoke at 11:32 AM on January 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

I took a polygraph when I was working at a crap clothing store in college and someone had stolen a bunch of leather coats. I'd been caught shoplifting in 9th grade, yet the polygraph didn't flinch when I was asked if I'd ever stolen. Oddly enough, instead they cornered me and asked why I had a "mitered response" when they asked me about drugs. Since I'd never done a drug in my life, I was floored. I didn't know how to get out of it, so I just started crying and said, "You'd have a mitered response too if your sister was addicted to heroin!" They left me alone after that & never doubted me again.
My sister did like her drugs, so it wasn't a total lie... but I played it way up so it wasn't truth either.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:39 AM on January 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

Remember: Every true thing you say is going to hang you because they will get a baseline result of truth.

If you keep this in mind every truth is going to spike because you will remember that telling the truth is what will actually get you caught!!

Pick and item like dates, or a specific letter that when they mention it or use it will cause anxiety.

None of this "beats the test" it just invalidates the test. As I understand it botched tests can keep one out of goverment service just like failed ones.
posted by Megafly at 11:45 AM on January 15, 2007

Your prospective organization is no doubt exempted under the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, section 2006, giving a free pass to:
- Any US government agency - Federal, state or local - could be for a garbage collector or cryptographer.
- Contractors to federal agencies that are involved in National Security, intelligence or conterintelligence
- Private security services charged with protection of public utilities, money transfer, etc. For example, walmart securitry guard jobs aren't exempt.
- Manufacturers or distributors or controlled substances, and organizations that dispense them, such as pharmacies.

That said, know your rights. My limited understanding is that a polygraph can't every detect your lying about a particular thing, but tells how you respond in general, particularly on topics that create tension in someone who is deceiving the interviewer. Some comments I've heard and read: Feign ignorance of the process to your interviewers. Never elaborate on answers to relevant questions. You will most likely be video recorded during the interview. Flexing your muscles or doing any other obvious physical things during the test, particularly during control questions, will make you and blow the interview. That would appear to include clenching your sphincter muscle, or doing kegels as that can be detected by pressure-sensitive pads which, if I'm to believe the WikiHow reference, are on the rig as well.

When researching or obtaining materials on learning to beat the box understand polygraphy, try to keep your searches anonymous.
posted by nj_subgenius at 12:52 PM on January 15, 2007

every ever. Egh.
posted by nj_subgenius at 12:52 PM on January 15, 2007

Sure you might pass the first polygraph, but what about the second? The third?
posted by geoff. at 1:02 PM on January 15, 2007

I know from that same person that even light, distant-past drug use invalidates the candidate.

I'd reconsider how you actually know this.
Suppose 10 people fess up to drug use and those 10 people are not hired. Isn't it possible that the drug use has weight but is not an automatic invalidator and that in each of these 10 cases, the people weren't otherwise strong enough candidates to overcome the fact of having used drugs in the past?
posted by juv3nal at 1:03 PM on January 15, 2007

Note that if this is a government agency, especially one of the military/intelligence services, the polygraph test is not designed to weed out drug users from non-drug-users. It's designed to weed out candidates who have the potential to be blackmailed from those who don't. I know from personal AND anecdotal experience that, for these tests, it doesn't matter whether you've done drugs in the past - it's whether you feel ashamed enough about it to lie, and therefore open yourself up to blackmail or other extortion.

Of course, they'll probably subject you to more scrutiny if you answer in the affirmative, just to make sure you're not currently addicted to anything. Again, its to make sure nobody but that agency can "own" you.
posted by aberrant at 1:03 PM on January 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Let me offer one more data point. I've interviewed with a certain intelligence agency. I freely admitted to my pot-smoking ways in college, and they didn't even bat an eyelash. I didn't go through the actual polygraph, but only because I decided to seek employment elsewhere, not because they didn't offer.
posted by epimorph at 1:15 PM on January 15, 2007

If it truly was light, distant-past drug use, just tell the truth. Your honesty probably means more to them than some inconsequential experiment with drugs in college.

Unless you are applying to become an FDA agent?
posted by Count Ziggurat at 2:07 PM on January 15, 2007

I say tell the truth. Aberrant has the best reason so far, but also think about this:

They're probably going to repeat this test periodically. Annually, random samples, etc. Do you want to go through this stress every time? Especially when you have something to lose, like your paycheck and security clearance.

Also, if you do go through with it, they will most likely accuse you of having "a response" or "hit" on something. Just to see if you freak out and confess to something. Don't worry about it. They'll either hire you or not, and it probably won't have anything to do with the polygraph results.
posted by ctmf at 2:55 PM on January 15, 2007

certain intelligence agency

I wonder if this choice of words was deliberate.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 3:36 PM on January 15, 2007

Do NOT do what invoke said. If you are excessively nervous, that is grounds enough to fail most polygraph tests.
posted by phrontist at 7:06 PM on January 15, 2007

I've just completed my polygraph for one of the two agencies who are allowed to use it in Canada. You can't fake it.

A polygraph should not be called a lie detector, it's really, really bad at that. What it can accurately be called is a truth verifier. They can known with about 90% accuracy when you are telling the truth (unless you are a sociopath who does not register a galvanic skin response, the only measure you cannot learn to fake with bio-feedback).

That is to say, if you learn all you possibly can about how to fake it, you MIGHT be able to skew the results so they wouldn't be able to tell if you were lying, really nervous, or fucking with them. That said, any job that has a decent number of applicatants is going to throw those people in the same bin as the ones that failed, merely for safety sake.

Everything invoke said to do would show up like a red stop sign to an experience examiner. They might not know WHAT you're lying about, so that tactic might work fine in a criminal investigation, you're not giving them anything specific to go forward with, but anyoe using the polygraph for a background interview is going to run like hell from you.

For what its worth, here in Canada I was told by about a half dozen people, including a psychologist and senior officers at the organization in question, that they really don't care what you've done. They're much more worried that you'll lie and get caught ten years later (when you're working for them) by the press/a spy/the mob or someone else who can blackmail you once you're in. YMMV depending on the insanity of the agency/department/company in question.

The only good way to 'beat' a polygraph: don't lie.

I can't talk about the process because I swore not to, but I can tell you that it's accurate. They prove it to you with a test case - and belive me, it's one of the single most stressful days you can have.

Remember, they likely don't care what you're lying about, just that you are.
posted by tiamat at 7:53 PM on January 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

but I can tell you that it's accurate

The science really doesn't back up your anecdote, tiamat. And I mean *really* doesn't back up your anecdote. But don't believe me; the National Academy of Sciences published a study a couple of years back that examined questions of validity when polygraphs are used for employment screening (as opposed to their use to uncover deception in a specific incident). Here's a summary article about its conclusions:

The NAS committee said polygraph testing rests on weak scientific underpinnings. And much of the available evidence for judging its validity lacks scientific rigor. "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," says the report.

Using these tests in pre-employment screening is even more complicated because examiners make inferences about individuals' future behavior based on information about previous deeds, which may differ widely from the offenses authorities hope to prevent. The committee concluded that polygraph testing is less accurate for employee screening than for investigating specific incidents.

On a more basic level, theories about how deception is linked to the physiological responses being measured have not been verified, the report says. A variety of mental and physical factors, such as anxiety about being tested, can affect polygraph results--making the technique susceptible to error. Also, people can learn ways to mimic some physiological responses of truthful test takers. This is a particular concern when dealing with deceptive individuals who have strong incentives to perfect certain "countermeasures" or ploys to appear honest and avoid detection. Available research sheds little light on how well examiners can systematically expose such people.

posted by mediareport at 11:08 PM on January 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've spoken with a federal agent who administers polygraph tests for prospective hires, and from that I can second those above who suggested that:

(1) earlier minor drug use will not automatically disqualify you; and
(2) attempting to outsmart a polygraph is a really bad idea.

If the assumptions are correct that this is for a government agency (and even for a private employer, in fact), the thing you need to realize is that questions about drug use are not used to pinpoint the specifics of your usage history, they are asked to assess your reaction. If you start by denying any drug use, but ultimately get pressed into admitting that you smoked a few joints in college (or even that you progressively admit more and more), that's an easy way to fail the test and the interview: you lied. But if you admit your minor use without hesitation, and remain confident under the hard questioning, then you'll pass. Remember -- the whole point of the exercise is not fact gathering, it's character assessment.

In short, just tell the truth.
posted by padjet1 at 7:23 AM on January 16, 2007

The Third Act of this episode of This American Life is a good example of how NOT to take the test.
posted by Dalton at 8:35 AM on January 16, 2007

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