Dissecting The Moment of Truth: Can You Trust a Game Show About a Lie Detector?
The nerdy polygraph examiner hunched over his machine, poring over the indicator pens while police detectives ask pointed questions. With every query,the examiner looks up and nods curtly yea or nea. And before long, the subject is nailed.
Bunk, says longtime polygraph expert and former Brooksville police officer David Bryant. After years of learning how to administer the complex tests, Bryant can't help bristling when he sees a phony Hollywood portrayal of what he does. And there's nothing which spins his top more than Fox-TV's new polygraph-centered game show, Moment of Truth.
"In a real test, all the questions are carefully reviewed in advance word for word," wrote Bryant in an email today; he had contacted me over the weekend after seeing my capsule review of the show in Saturday's paper. "There are no tricks and no surprises. Interrogation is done before or after the collection of charts: not during. The questions are repeated on several charts....One reaction to one question on one chart equals no opinion to deception."
In reality, it is surprising how inaccurate the popular depictions of the process is. Bryant says a good test may last more than two hours, with the polygrapher asking and reasking questions which get suspicious responses before concluding he has heard a falsehood. And many typical tents: that nervous people fail, you can defeat the process with a tack in your shoe, or tests are never admissible in court, are also wrong.
Bryant expects to get lots more "Jerry Springer-style" requests from customers after Wednesday's debut of Truth, which subjects contestants to off camera polygraph tests and then re-asks the questions in a public setting, with significant people in their lives looking on. So a long-absent dad may ask his son if forgiveness is ever possible or an obese person may ask ho they feel about fat people. Lie and you lose.
"Movies give the image of tough, confrontational style interrogation that often crosses the line from intimidation to outright torture," said Bryant, who also administers the test to sex offenders who must take it as a condition of parole. "Not only is this illegal and unethical, it is counter productive and simply not the way it is. Polygraph examiners are first and foremost interrogators. My job is to obtain accurate and complete information. I use the polygraph instrument (not a machine) to do this. The negative connotation of interrogation is so prevalent that many agencies don't even like the word and euphemize it with "interview". Real interrogation looks more like selling a used car. One must build bridges with the subject, overcome his resistance to telling the truth and create an environment where the subject is comfortable in disclosing truthful information. Polygraph is much better when used to confirm truth than to detect lies."
Bryant would really hate this: Fox has set up lie detector booths in public areas, building awareness for the show by giving quickie analyses under the watchful eye of host Mark Walberg and Fox late night host Spike Feresten.
"Done correctly, polygraph is a valuable tool to aid in an investigation by detecting those who are deceptive, confirming those who are truthful, and providing information to guide the successful interrogation," he said. "If done improperly (fast and cheap), there is no validity...Various validity studies show us at 85-95% accurate although there are tests for certain circumstances that can reach the 99.9% level. In short, polygraph is a combination of art and science. If the art is done poorly, the science quickly becomes worthless."
Here's the preview. You decide whether they've handled it well or not.