Can you fail at a lie detector test if you are nervous?

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In this blog we will answer the question “Can you fail at a lie detector test if you are nervous?”. 

We will also briefly touch upon how the lie detector test works, how accurate it is, and how you can beat the lie detector test. 

Can you fail at a lie detector test if you are nervous?

The straightforward answer to this question is yes, you can fail the lie detector test if you are nervous. 

According to the National Academy of Sciences, anxiety and nervousness and other mental or physical factors can affect the results of a lie detector test. (Greater Houston Defence)

This is because the lie detector test or the polygraph test measures baseline anxiety against anxiety spikes, and if you are already anxious it is very likely that your test results will be susceptible to error.

The writers at the Polygraph Examiner also suggest that it is possible that mental conditions such as Anxiety, Depression, Bi-Polar, ADHD, ADD or PTSD can influence results. 

However, they mention that if you can remain calm, breath normally, and follow directions it is possible for you to pass.

However, considering that you are already nervous it is unlikely that remaining calm and anxious free is something that you can do. So it is more likely that you will fail the test or that the results will be inconclusive.

How does the lie detector test work?

The lie detector test or the polygraph test is done with a machine that detects and reads, in the most basic levels,  physiological processes such as breathing rate, blood pressure, pulse rate, and perspiration. 

More sophisticated polygraph machines also record magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain. 

How it works is that once you have been hooked up to this machine, the machine records these elements based on your reactions to various questions that are being asked to you- these questions can be relevant to what is being discussed and can also include irrelevant questions. 

This is because the readings compare basic level readings of your physiological states of heart rate, blood pressure etc versus the readings caused by possible anxiety related to the questions- based on the belief that if you lie, the readings change.

When the individual is being tested, questions may be repeated two to three times and the subjects may be asked to lie to establish baseline levels and the test goes on to one to three hours to complete.

The basic idea around which the lie detector test is built upon is that the control questions- irrelevant questions- arise from the level of baseline anxiety related to the experience of being interrogated. 

This baseline anxiety is compared to other questions that are relevant to the issue at hand which is believed to trigger greater levels of anxiety should the person be lying and this will reflect in their physiological responses of heart rate, bp etc. 

How accurate is the lie detector test?

Stormberg, a writer for Vox, has clearly summarised that lie detectors are not accurate in detecting lies. This is mostly because of the fact that there are no psychological signs that indicate deception. 

Meaning that everything that the test machine is supposed to detect-  heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and breathing — are not really related to whether the person is lying or not. It is more so related to an individual’s anxiety and this anxiety could be caused by factors other than deception. 

These factors that are measured are usually associated with fear and anxiety and this puts a huge dent on the test results as the spikes in measurement and anomalies can be indicative of anxiety rather than them lying. 

So an individual who is telling the truth might fail the test because of nervousness whereas a person who is lying could pass the test because they have learned how to lie calmly.

There are various other factors that can affect the accuracy of the lie detector test. Drugs and medical conditions may affect a polygraph test.

Medications that affect heart rate and blood pressure such as antihypertensives and anti-anxiety medications can influence test results. 

Illegal drugs, including heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine may also affect the test. So usually, in order to remove this variable, drug tests and blood tests are done before the polygraph test. 

Various conditions such as epilepsy, nerve damage (including essential tremor), heart disease, have suffered a stroke- can also impact results and are not advised to take the test. 

How to beat the lie detector test?

When it comes to beating the lie detector test, there is not much advice that can be given to help someone past the test. 

Anne Marie Helmenstine, for thoughtCo advises that if you want to pass the test you will either have to be very calm and very zen which is not really possible for most people. 

Helmenstine also gives a few pieces of advice that she suggests might help but does not guarantee that you will beat the test. However, it is possible that the results can be deemed inconclusive.

Here is what she suggests:

Stay upset for as long as you can throughout the entire test. This can include you pretending to be fearful and confused throughout the entire test. By doing this, your readings on the test will remain inconclusive as the readings will indicate spiked levels of anxiety overall rather than for specific questions. 

Take time before answering any question and during this time try to identify what kind of question is being asked. Identify if the questions are irrelevant, relevant, or diagnostic (control). 

  • Irrelevant questions will include asking you to confirm your name and other non-related questions. Here you can alter your breathing or do things that spike your reading then go back to normal for the next question.
  • Relevant questions are related to the issues that are being tested. An example would be, “Did you know about the crime?” 
  • Diagnostic questions are ones people lie about mostly. Examples include, “Have you ever taken anything from your workplace?” 

The goal is to react in unexpected ways for all the different types of questions but for each question make sure that you answer firmly and without hesitation. 

Try to answer with yes or no as much as possible and avoid elaborating things. If they ask you to elaborate you can either keep it short or choose to cut the story short by feigning ignorance. 

If accused of lying, use the accusation as fuel to feel upset and confused. Make sure that your spikes are a result of you being confused rather than anxious. Most probably the results will be conflicting leading you to be tested all the more or lead the test to be inconclusive over all.

Conclusion

In this blog we will answer the question “Can you fail at a lie detector test if you are nervous?”. 

We will also briefly touch upon how the lie detector test works, how accurate it is, and how you can beat the lie detector test. 

FAQ related to Can you fail at a lie detector test if you are nervous?

What kind of questions do they ask on a polygraph?

There are three types of questions usually asked in a polygraph test, these include:

  • Irrelevant questions will include asking you to confirm your name and other non-related questions. 
  • Relevant questions are related to the issues that are being tested. An example would be, “Did you know about the crime?” 
  • Diagnostic questions are ones people lie about mostly. Examples include, “Have you ever taken anything from your workplace?” 

How long does a lie detector test take?

Usually it will take around 1-3 hours for the test to be conducted this includes all procedure related to the testing, the testing itself, and the after test processes.

Can you pass a lie detector test if you have anxiety?

The writers at the Polygraph Examiner also suggest that it is possible that mental conditions such as Anxiety, Depression, Bi-Polar, ADHD, ADD or PTSD can influence results. 

However, they mention that if you can remain calm, breath normally, and follow directions it is possible for you to pass.

Is it possible to fail a lie detector test when telling the truth?

People who are telling the truth can fail at the test if they are trying too hard to control their responses or if their anxiety levels are spiking. 

Is it possible to cheat a lie detector test?

When it comes to beating the lie detector test, there is not much advice that can be given to help someone past the test. 

Anne Marie Helmenstine, for thoughtCo advises that if you want to pass the test you will either have to be very calm and very zen which is not really possible for most people. But you can cheat the test by deliberately distorting your physiological readings when telling the truth

What disqualifies you on a polygraph?

There are various other factors that can affect the accuracy of the lie detector test and disqualify you for the test. Drugs and medical conditions may affect a polygraph test.

Medications that affect heart rate and blood pressure such as antihypertensives and anti-anxiety medications can influence test results. 

Illegal drugs, including heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine may also affect the test. So usually, in order to remove this variable, drug tests and blood tests are done before the polygraph test. 

Various conditions such as epilepsy, nerve damage (including essential tremor), heart disease, have suffered a stroke- can also impact results and are not advised to take the test. 

What does the lie detector measure?

The lie detector test or the polygraph test is done with a machine that detects and reads, in the most basic levels,  physiological processes such as breathing rate, blood pressure, pulse rate, and perspiration. More sophisticated polygraph machines also record magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain. 

Does Xanax help pass polygraph tests?

Medications that affect heart rate and blood pressure such as antihypertensives and anti-anxiety medications can influence test results. Drugs like Xanax can bring about an inconclusive result. However, for some people these drugs will have no effect on the result.

How do I prepare for a lie detector test?

The best way to prepare for the test is to do the same things that you do everyday without any change in routine. Do not take any drugs, unless prescribed by the doctor, and avoid drinking too much caffeine or alcohol etc.

References

Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, September 3). How to Pass a Lie Detector Test. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-to-pass-a-lie-detector-test-4150683

Stormberg.J.Lie detectors: Why they don’t work, and why police use them anyway. Vox. Retrieved on 22nd Feb 2022. https://www.vox.com/2014/8/14/5999119/polygraphs-lie-detectors-do-they-work

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