Your Body Telegraphs Your Lies


So, have you heard the stories about how to beat a polygraph test? Ever read any of the odd suggestions on the Internet?

Among them: Silently count backward from 100 during the test to distract your brain, learn to control your breathing, put a tack in your shoe or bite down hard on your tongue to elicit a pain response and — the one that makes me laugh the hardest — contract your anal sphincter muscle to confuse the results of the test.

Do any of these methods work? According to the experts, they do not. In fact, if used they can actually make innocent people look guilty.

Jack Trimarco is one of the country’s pre-eminent polygraph analysts. He was with the FBI for 21 years, heading up the Los Angeles Polygraph Unit, and he figures he’s conducted some 2,500 lie detector tests all over the world. Trimarco is the guy both the cops and defense attorneys want to call in to get to the truth.

In the absence of DNA or other conclusive evidence, a polygraph test — given by an experienced examiner — can be very valuable to a district attorney struggling with whether to file charges against a suspect.

I ran into Trimarco recently at the annual conference of the California Association of Licensed Investigators in San Diego.

“There are all these anti-polygraph Internet sites out there,” Trimarco explained to a room full of CALI members who had signed up to hear his presentation. “And they offer to tell you all the secrets of how to beat the test for $70.”

Trimarco called such sites “terrible frauds,” out to take worried people’s money. “We professionals already know all the tricks they peddle and can spot them a mile away,” he said in his quiet but confident way.

Since the first modern-day lie detector machine went into use back in 1921, the technology has evolved considerably. So much so that Trimarco is willing to reveal at least one major weapon polygraphists use today to detect those who try to cheat by using the “countermeasures” described above. It’s called the movement or pressure pad, and the person taking the test sits on it.

“It detects any muscle movement that could be a countermeasure,” Trimarco told me. “If a person deliberately bites their tongue or squeezes their sphincter, their physiology will change. When a person tells a lie, their physiology changes, and they can’t help it,” he said. The subject’s sweat glands will activate, their blood pressure will jump then go down immediately, their respiration will change, and all this happens over the course of just a few seconds.

In other words, your body telegraphs your lies.

Pam Shaw, the president of the American Polygraph Association, admits: “Every test can be beaten. But under polygraph, (that happens) under very, very narrow conditions.”

Shaw says people who are required to take a polygraph to get or keep a job or to prove to law enforcement they had nothing to do with a crime, understandably, get nervous before a test. Many hit the Internet to research the polygraph process and run across horror stories from those who claim they had been declared guilty when they were not. After reading the sometimes cockamamie-sounding suggestions to manipulate the test, their anxiety might cause them to resort to using countermeasures.

Shaw told me during a phone conversation. “They feel they have to enhance the outcome … and what really happens? What really happens is truthful people end up hurting themselves.” Shaw’s best advice to those facing a polygraph test? “Let your body do what it does naturally.”

Polygraph testing has always been controversial, but at this point it is not going away. The real problem, according to those in the upper echelon of the industry, is not the machine’s reliability but those barely trained, uncertified operators who try to pass themselves off as experienced. Charlatan examiners posing as pros can be found nationwide, especially in states like California, where for some reason lawmakers refuse to acknowledge or certify qualified polygraphists.

Currently, only one state — New Mexico — has fully embraced the idea that polygraph results are admissible in court, but only under strict certification guidelines for examiners. Most other states will allow the results to be presented to a jury if — and it’s a big IF — both sides in a case agree to do so. In the real world, that rarely happens. In federal court, the judge decides if polygraph results are allowed.

Still, lots of employers, police departments and many federal agencies require lie-detector tests. If you are one of those who must take one, Trimarco has a warning should you think you might be able to manipulate the results.

“The only way to give an experienced, licensed polygrapher a run for their money,” he said, is for the (test-taker) to be an experienced, licensed polygraph examiner themselves.”

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at or reach her via email [email protected]

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