A Healing Philosophy of the Polygraph

By Ken Wells - 05/06/2022



Series Three: Blog Twenty-Eight

During the early part of the 20th century a number of individuals intersected with separate research development that aided the creation of the first polygraph used in 1921. It has evolved and has been modified many times to its present use in deception detection. Today there is a variety of traditional analogue and modern digitized polygraph models that can be used.

The quality of polygraph research has improved considerably over the past three decades.  Its value is likely to increase as research continues to improve and address its current shortcomings. While it may not be possible to improve the polygraph to the level where it can truly be thought of as ‘The Lie Detector’, it does appear to hold the potential of becoming one of the most effective tools for the purpose of aiding in the detection of deception.

Therapeutically, a polygraph can be useful. Throughout the years as a therapist, a pretest sexual history interview has always yielded more sexual behavior history than I have been able to unearth in my own exploration. It is a support to an addict in recovery.  A sexual history polygraph supporting that what has been shared by an addict to a therapist is complete and truthful is a form of validation.

Further, I have used a polygraph with an addict who tends to piecemeal addict behavior in disclosure. This behavior is agonizing torture to an addict partner and family. The partner and family wonder with anxiety “when will the next shoe drop”.  The polygraph process circumvents the dribbling out of addict behavior in the disclosure process.

At times it has been helpful to utilize maintenance polygraph as an accountability tool for an addict. It gives reassurance to a partner who has experienced broken trust, particularly with an addict who has continued to lie and relapse in addict behavior.

At times an addict can distress on a question that they have not lied about but they did not reveal the entire truth around. For example, Joe who came to see me was on probation for cocaine abuse. During his maintenance polygraph he was asked a relevant question, “During the past 6 months of his probation had he used cocaine. He said “no” but distressed on the question. Upon review, during the past 6 months he disclosed that he attended a family gathering on Good Friday. He walked to the backyard patio and immediately noticed that many were smoking pot. He knew he needed to leave and that his probation terms would not allow him to stay.  He was polite and said hello to family members, excused himself and left. However, he did not disclose this information to his therapist, probation officer or the polygrapher. Therefore, when asked the question about cocaine use he distressed. Upon thorough discussion, the question was reviewed again and he was non-distressed when answering “No”. The polygraph was helpful to unearth behaviors that were compartmentalized. Compartmentalization is a common struggle for addicts in early recovery.

That said, it is my experience that polygraphs can be abused during recovery. Here are some considerations when employing a polygraph in an addict’s recovery.

  • Addict history polygraph. An addict history polygraph is extensive. Most addicts are poly-addicted or compulsive about more than one behavior. It is helpful to do an extensive history that traces each addictive behavior. An addict needs to recognize the cocktail of life experience that is used to numb out the pain. Addicts need to know not so much “why the addiction?” but “why the pain?” It is helpful to understand the magnitude of the pain by tracing the history of numbing out what hurts thru compulsive/addictive behaviors. After a therapist has completed an addict history interview, a polygrapher will do a more thorough pre-test interview that most often goes much deeper and excavates even more detail before relevant questions are designed or given. Remember, an addict in recovery has learned to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. Telling the truth with thorough detail is not a 90 degree turn for an addict. Details that have been compartmentalized or hidden take time to unearth.
  • Maintenance polygraphs can be utilized to provide partner safety and accountability for an addict. That said, I have concern that this use of polygraphy can be abused. It has proven helpful for addicts who continue to lie or withhold information about addict behavior to submit to a maintenance polygraph about behaviors that are minimized, withheld or blatantly lied about. The problems that I have noticed is when an addict partner will declare they need a polygraph to feel safe in the relationship. This may be true. But, it also may be an attempt to manipulate what they cannot control. What would be better is the partner utilizing their own tools for centering and caring with the help of a support group. Obviously, in order for a polygraph to be most helpful in this case, consultation with a seasoned addiction specialist is necessary. I don’t support partner’s demanding that an addict submit to a polygraph without consultation with a proven professional addict therapist. Standardization with the science of polygraphy is still evolving. It cannot be applied like a home test for COVID. There are many considerations beyond the skill and perception of a partner whose trust has been broken. Some couples have relied on a quarterly, semiannual or annual polygraph for years. To those who do I would ask how long do you want to rely on a machine to build trust with your addict partner? Do you want to sleep with a polygraph between you and your partner? There is no one right answer. It takes courage to answer questions like these. Please consult with a therapist before engaging polygraphy!
  • The alchemy of a polygraph requires training and experience.  It is unwise to mix and match different issues when utilizing polygraphy to get at the truth. When you mix and match issues like sexual fidelity with money management or ask vague questions over a long period of time, the reliability of the polygraph examination suffers. A trained experienced polygrapher knows this. However, it has been my experience that some ignore this concern and ask relevant questions that are not so relevant. Make sure your polygrapher is relevantly trained.
  • Polygraphy requires an environment that treats the examinee with dignity and respect. It is intimidating to have wires attached to your body to measure physiological responses to questions that are asked. It is important that a polygrapher treat each examinee with dignity and respect. It has been my experience that many polygraphers that I have engaged do not. Some treat examinees very unprofessional, condemnatory and rude. Don’t ever use a polygrapher who is condescending and bad mannered. Only use polygraphers who will treat you with professionalism.

Polygraphy can be very helpful tool in healing when used by those who have been trained to administer and utilize it as a healing strategy in therapy.

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