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Q: I've been asked by a potential employer to take a lie-detector test. There was a fair amount of pot smoking in my distant past, and I'm worried it'll disqualify me from the job, which I desperately need. Aren't there ways to beat the machine?
Before we start discussing techniques for fooling Mother Tech, let Mr. Roboto play lawyer for a sec. You don't mention who this potential employer is, but unless it's Uncle Sam, there's no way in Hades you can be coerced into taking the test. A 1988 federal law, the Employee Polygraph Protection Act, forbids private-sector firms from using lie detectors to screen applicants, though some unscrupulous bosses will try and bully you. (Word to the wise: Don't caveworse comes to worst, you'll have a sure-thing discrimination suit to file.)
No such legal protections exist when it comes to government jobs, however, despite mounting evidence that polygraphs are about as reliable as 17th-century dunking stools. Good thing the Web teems with tips on how to ace any lie-detector test, regardless of the numerous blunt-puffing skeletons in your closet.
As fans of cheesy detective fare already know, polygraphs work by measuring the physiological reactions of testees. The theory goes that a heightened pulse and sweaty palms invariably mean a person's not on the up-and-up. Problem is, that assumption is rooted mainly in medical folklore. Not a single study exists to support a universal correlation between lying and excessive perspiration, or a speedier heart rate. Some people are just more anxious, and will exhibit the physiological signs of deception when telling the absolute truthespecially when they're strapped into a machine and brusquely ordered, "Tell us how many times you smoked dope. Tell us!" (For federal jobs, 15 times or more over a lifetime is usually an automatic disqualifier.)
The other great polygraph flaw is its reliance on the "control question." This is the question a polygrapher asks in order to establish what your lie looks like on the machine. A popular one is "Have you ever driven a car after drinking?"the assumption being that no adult imbiber's ever been a perfect angel. But if you're really the conscientious type, and your answer of "no" is truthful, then you're royally screwed for the remainder of the test.
That's exactly what happened to a UCLA grad student named George Maschke back in 1994, when he applied to become an FBI special agent. Tripped up by his honest response to the drunk-driving question, Maschke was accused of being deceptive on questions about selling narcotics, contacting foreign spies, and divulging classified infopretty heady stuff for a penniless doctoral student. He got bounced from the FBI applicant pool as a result, a rejection that turned Maschke into the Web's foremost crusader against the polygraph. Now based in the Netherlands, he manages Antipolygraph.org, which features a freeware copy of his must-read book, The Lie Behind the Lie Detector. The fourth chapter, in particular, should be your pre-test bible, as it details each and every "countermeasure" you can deploy to breeze through the test. Among the favorites: Clenching one's sphincter (though the buttocks must remain relaxed), biting the tongue, and varying your breathing pattern.
The last tactic seems especially popular among habitués of Antipolygraph.org's message board, which has lots of true-life anecdotes from test beaters, like "One should bite one's tongue" and "I used a combination of anal puckering, vivid imagery, and some breathing changeups." Be aware, though, that some popular tricks are pure urban myth. Antiperspirant on the fingertips? A Valium? Yoga? All are sure routes to flunking, and thus back to the unemployment line.
Few of the countermeasures are easy to master, so set aside time to practice before the fateful day. Should you ever get frustrated, just remember that superspy Aldrich Ames passed every polygraph he ever took, even as he sold his CIA pals down the river. And that the polygraph's inventor was a Harvard psychologist named William Marston, whose other claim to fame was inventing Wonder Woman, under the pseudonym of Charles Moulton. When you think about Lynda Carter prancing about in those booty-huggers and bullet-deflecting bracelets, the polygraph doesn't seem so scary, now, does it?
Input questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.