Would You? Have You?? Did You?!?

I Take a Polygraphy Test

The job paid $6.50 an hour to push petunias at a "garden center"attached to a cheap carpet store on Bayshore Boulevard, a place called Floorcraft. Well at least it would get me out of the office and into the gardening business. Nurseries are good gossip centers: I would learn who's hiring, talk to people and make arrangements to work for them, develop my own business.

OK, I'm interested.

Well, there is one thing, I don't approve of it, but we're part of a larger operation, and the management requires it. I'm going to have to ask you to take a polygraph test.

Whooah. Creepout city.

Yeah, I know. A lot of people have problems with it. They just ask questions about whether or not you've ever shoplifted, whether you've stolen from an employer, whether you're on any hard drugs. I can tell you should have no problem with it.

I've always been fascinated by things like phone taps, bugs, surveillance data bases, but especially lie detectors--machines that circumvents fibbing, that lovely act that makes social life possible. I once did civil disobedience, not because I think it's a great tactic, but because I wanted see what it's like inside a jail. Such forays are a way of confronting a power in a contained way, learning what its about, shedding its secrecy, robbing its strength. Kind of like S and M!


Tuesday, June 16, 1987. Summer of Love in the Haight Ashbury twenty years later. The office was at 1781 Haight Street near Stanyan. A hippy answered the door. He lead me into a rambling, musty and worn railroad flat, a former crash pad. Now the place was strewn with used office furniture instead of Indian cotton bedspreads and streaks of flourescent orange glimmered underneath beige paint. Stopping in front of a battered naugahyde sofa in the hall, the hippy stopped and told the "interviewer" would be just a few minutes late but that I could just have a seat and look through those magazines, pointing at a tiny formica etagere. No thanks. I chose to study the details of a "decorator painting" of Venice, harvest gold dome of St. Marks, avocado green gondolas. Fifteen minutes later, having permanently corrupted my visual memory of Venice, I broke down and looked through the bookcase. Sure enough, underneath piles of Readers Digest and TWA flight magazines was a copy of Acid Dreams: LSD, the CIA, and the Sixties Rebellion. Piss and love.

I listened to the guy talk to a prospective customer on the phone. Yes the tests are very thorough and conclusive. We go through the clients' work histories, their personal finances, whether they've ever stolen from employer, and "custom questions" to fit your situation. Of course, people are a little nervous when they first come in. But the test is painless and 99 percent thank us when its through. We charge $60.

Thirty five minutes later and I was getting pretty fucking disgusted with waiting around. Finally, I heard fumblings at the door--one minute, two. The stupidest people in the world always turn out to be cops. This jerk couldn't even turn his own lock. I got up and swung the door open, startling this bimbo, hair dyed Lucille Ball red, reeking of perfume and dripping bright rayon scarfs and dross chains. Sort of Gypsy style but without the design integrity.

Gee, this is a change, a client answering the door. Are you my nine o'clock?

I raised my wrist and looked at my watch. Yes.

Behind her was a man--neat, contained, firm pot belly, cowboy boots. I could tell he had spent too much time in either the police or the military or both. After a quick look we knew we despised each other.

I was given a form--name, date, address, position applying for, read the release and sign. The release says that under California law, an employer cannot ask an employee to take a polygraph test as a condition either of hire or of continued employment. The form asked me to recognize this, sign, and take the test anyway. Ironic--in the name of employee honesty, Floorcraft was doing something illegal. I wrote an addendum restricting the firm from releasing the results of the test to anybody but Floorcraft--something not mentioned in the release.

They all went to the back of the flat and jabbered. I waited five minutes after completing the form, just to build up my exasperation, marched in and announced to the three I'm ready. I was led into a small room containing a desk and two chairs. The redneck was to be my interrogator. He had a photocopied form. He explained that he was just visiting, that he had his own business someplace else, excuse him if stumbles on some of the questions, but gee, the forms are pretty similar after all.

The strategy of the interrogation is to extract detailed responses before hooking you up to the machine. After you're hooked up, the interrogator goes down the list of themes, asking if you had answered truthfully. The machine is not accurate, especially if you're out to beat it. It's a psychological torture device, a shortcut to wearing down your resistance.

He began by asking me about my medical history. Am I seeing a doctor. Yes. What about. I get migraines. Are they treatable, do they ever stop you from going to work. I mused about claiming that I had anal warts and that was why I was trying to get out of office work--too much sitting.

Have I ever lied. Of course. Please wait till I finish a question before you answer. Have you ever lied in order to stay out of serious trouble.

How much do you estimate that you drink on any given night. How much in a week?  Do you now have, or have you ever had, a drinking problem.

He started to question me about "street" drugs. I told him flat out that I refused to answer any questions about drugs. So we skipped a list of maybe thirty drugs. He would have wanted to know when I had taken them, how much I had taken, if I was continuing to take them.

If I had to pay all off all my debts, what would that come to. Have I ever been past due on a payment. Have I ever declared bankruptcy. There were big spaces on his form for this one. Have I ever been convicted by a court. My driving record--any moving violations that were my fault.

He had an elaborate introduction for have-you-ever-stolen-from-an-employer: We realize that there are no little angels running around out there. All we ask is that you answer truthfully. If you mess up, forget something, that's all right. I'll go back and help you through it. I told him that I have been working in offices and I have taken pens now and then you know how you stick them in your shirt pocket you take them home lay them on your desk and somehow you never have to buy pens. Oh yeah and I took a binder once to hold notes.


Disappointed, he asked is that all? I think long and hard. No. What would you estimate the total value of all you've stolen. Uh, nineteen dollars and fifty three cents. Did I fill out my application accurately and completely. Have I ever been fired or asked to resign from a job. I'm sure there would have been requests for details if I said yes. Was my resume truthful.

That was it. He ran through what he would ask me on the machine. One new question--would I lie if I thought I would get away with it. The rest were short summations of the previous lengthy interrogation. Do I have a medical problem that would interfere with the performance of my job duties. Have I ever lied to stay out of serious trouble. Do I have a drinking problem.

Next he connected me to the machine: a chain with an expansion gauge around my chest, another around my abdomen, an inflatable cuff pulse monitor (like they use to take your blood pressure) around my upper arm, and two jingly tingle sensors on my fingertips (my favorite accessory).

He announced that he was going to ask me six questions, to all of which I would answer no, and consequently lie to one. This would show him what it looked like when I lied. Is it Sunday?  No. A longish pause while he waits for my body signs to get back to normal. Is it Monday? No. Pause. Is it Tuesday? No. (The lie, you see). Pause. Is it...

In PW issue 10 we ran a fact sheet on how to pass a lie detector test (reprint below). I followed the strategy of tensing up when I lied, relaxing when I told the truth. Feet flat on the floor, we began. Would you. Have you. Did you.

The interrogator was irritated with me. I fucked around with my pulse rate and breathing patterns, he couldn't arrive at what was normal for me. Also, I moved around too much. That is, I would move my head and sigh in exasperation at the invasive questions. He barked, stop moving. There is a very sensitive component in this machine that costs $700 to replace.

Oh, you mean if I thrash around like this

[draw squiggles]

it breaks something?

I didn't thrash.

I should have. But I didn't, partly because the guy was big and I felt physically intimidated. But partly I was having a hard time keeping my thoughts straight. Let's see, is it relax when you tell the truth and tense up when you lie. Or is it the other way around. I couldn't remember. So by now I was just tense all the time. I wanted it to end.

Well, I can't tell what's going on, he said. We're going to have to go through the questions one more time. Remain still. When you move your head, it causes your neck to move and that causes your chest to move. If you have to take a deep breath, do it between questions. The test is about to begin. Would you. Have you. Did you.

Finally, it was over. Remain still until I take the equipment off you. I looked down at my right hand. It was blue from being bound by the cuff. As I write this account two days later, I stop now and then to massage my arm, still sore from having the circulation constricted for almost half an hour.

When I was unleashed, the man said, I can't tell whether you were lying or telling the truth, but I can tell you didn't like taking the test. Why not.

I told him I thought it was wrong, a poor substitute for paying employees decent wages, conducting informative interviews, checking references. Let me ask you this, if you had a business from which employees were stealing millions of dollars, what would you do.

That's a stupid question, I would never place myself in that position.

He leans back. The two questions that I'm getting a slightly unusual response on are stealing from previous employers and being accurate on your resume. Well, I said, I was honest about stealing. Then I made a mistake. I said resumes are by nature amplified. But everything is correct and documentable (the truth).

What do you mean, what was amplified.

By this time I was unnerved. I should not have drawn him past where we had already been. I had been unnerved and was tripping over hurdles that thirty minutes earlier I would have easily avoided. I blocked: if Floorcraft has any specific questions, I would be glad to address them directly.

The guy leaned forward. People like you make my job ten times harder.

I leave feeling elated. I really frustrated that guy. But I am sick for two days, fending off migraines and nausea. Describing the encounter later, my voice breaks and I know I could cry very easily. I am hyperaware of the presence of police. When I go to a store and notice that several of the clerks are new, I wonder, has there been a purge, did they all have to take polygraph tests?

Don't take polygraph tests. Check to see if you are legally protected from the compulsion. If you're not, still don't take it. After one sordid hour, someone will have a file of information on you that you will regret. But if you are forced, really forced to take the test, practice responding to the questions above with a friend. Make your responses brief. Don't divulge any real information. I would not have told the guy about my migraines. No elaborate stories--they get too hard to keep straight. If you're going to lie, lie all the way. For instance, instead of admitting to ever having taken pens and a binder, I would have said I have never taken anything of substantial value that I can remember. The questioner will ask for details, what you mean. But stick to your first response. Store those responses in a little cell in your head. Make them real, they are real, certainly more real than their hypocritical morality.

A few days later, the nursery manager calls. Well, when can you come to work.

That's ok. I've decided not to take the job.

by Mark Leger

graphic by I.B. Nelson





The polygraph test, also known as the lie detector, is an example of technology at its worst. It is used by the ruling class--bosses and cops--to frighten the working class into submission, and to blacklist those who won't cooperate.

The victim of the polygraph is told to have a seat. Devices are then attached to the victim's body to measure the breathing rate, the pulse, the blood pressure, and the electrical resistance of the skin.

The polygraph is not fool-proof. It works best on people who believe in it.

According to the federal Office of Technology Assessment, these are some effective ways to beat the lie detector.

Physical Methods: When you're answering truthfully, bite your tongue or tense your muscles to heighten your pulse rate and blood pressure. Then when you're lying, try to relax.

Drugs: The tranquilizer meprobamate, known as Miltown, has helped liars beat the polygraph.

Hypnosis and Biofeedback:For people who have training in these techniques, they can be used to control the physical responses. The physiological variables that the polygraphy records, such as pulse rate, respiratory frequency and skin conductivity, are altered by many stresses other than guilt over telling lies. Examples are fear, anger, embarrassment or even guilt about something totally unrelated to what is in the questioner's mind.

Mental Methods: An experienced member of the Free Orlando Group says you can't really calm yourself down with the machine hooked up to you and your job on the line. The important thing is not to worry about being calm, but rather to keep your mind off the questions.

There is a pause of several seconds between each question. During this time you must get your mind focused on something other than the question. Some people do increasingly complex math problems to distract their attention: 2x4=8, 2x8=16, 2x16=32, etc. A few people have had good results from concentrating on their favorite top 40 song.

Another method is to decide that the question means something different from what the examniner thinks it means. If you are asked if you've ever taken anything from an employer, remind yourself that the results of your labor rightfully belong to you nad your fellow-workers, not to your profiteering employer.

Polygraph operators are usually over confident; they don't know that the human spirit is more powerful than their nasty little machines.

This originally appeared in PW #10, and was sent in by FOG (Free Orlando Group)