BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last Friday, while doing a radio interview in Colorado, Mike Jones took a polygraph test asserting that he had had a sexual affair with and provided drugs to Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals. MALE REPORTER: In an attempt to further prove his credibility, Jones took a polygraph test on a radio show this morning. He failed the test, but stood by his allegations. FEMALE REPORTER: The test administrator says he wants to give him the test again because Jones was clearly exhausted when he took it, and it may have affected the results. TED HAGGARD: We're so grateful that he failed the polygraph test this morning. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That last voice was Haggard's. He may have been grateful that Jones failed the test, but in the end, Haggard did confess to buying drugs and that parts of his life were, quote, "repulsive and dark."
For as long has human beings have had the power of speech, they've been trying to figure out when other human beings are lying. Modern technology was thrown into the effort in 1913, when a Harvard psychology student named William Moulton Marston used systolic blood pressure as a form of lie detection.
Later, the ability to measure respiration and galvanic skin response was added by Dr. John Larson and psychologist Leonard Keeler. But Marston was the polygraph's first and biggest booster, using it to promote everything from Gillette razor blades to marital fidelity. Incidentally, Marston also invented the DC Comic character Wonder Woman, whose magic lasso had the power to force anyone encircled by it to tell the truth. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER – WONDER WOMAN THEME SONG]
Her lasso probably worked better. A 2003 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that though polygraph tests work better than random chance, they are not perfect, and it concluded that they should not be relied upon for screening security personnel.
The NAS also suggested that it's the mystique surrounding the device rather than its scientific foundation that accounts for much of its success. That may be why the polygraph is so often cited in pop culture, and why Seinfeld failed the polygraph test he took to prove to his girlfriend that he'd never watched Melrose Place. [VIDEO CLIP – SEINFELD] POLYGRAPH OPERATOR: What's your name? JERRY SEINFELD: Jerry Seinfeld. POLYGRAPH OPERATOR: Did Billy sleep with Allison's best friend? [LAUGHTER] JERRY SEINFELD: I don't know. POLYGRAPH OPERATOR: Did Jane's fiancé kidnap Sydney and take her to Las Vegas, and if so, did she enjoy it? JERRY SEINFELD: Yes! [LAUGHTER] Yes. That stupid idiot! He left her for Kimberly! He slept with her sister! He tricked her into giving him - [END VIDEO CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jennifer Mnookin is a professor of law at the University of California Los Angeles who has considered the place of the polygraph in pop culture and real life. Welcome to the show. JENNIFER MNOOKIN: Thank you for having me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the ultimate test of the polygraph's reliability should be its admissibility in court. So how trustworthy have the courts found it? JENNIFER MNOOKIN: The courts have almost uniformly rejected the polygraph. [BROOKE LAUGHS] It is generally not admissible in court. Courts' reluctance to admit it isn't, I think, simply about reliability. There's plenty of other kinds of evidence that are less reliable that we regularly use, including kinds of forensic evidence, and, of course, including eyewitness testimony, which is regularly wrong, and yet of course we allow it.
So the reasons why courts have been concerned to reject the polygraph, I think, goes to on the one hand we kind of long for the idea of the perfect machine that could tell us once and for all if somebody was telling the truth. Wouldn't that be great?
But we also have a good deal of cultural anxiety about usurping the role of the jury as the group who in the end gets to decide whether or not somebody's telling the truth. That's supposed to be a core function of the jury. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But isn't part of the anxiety also that if you can lie really well, you can beat the machine? I mean, the famous spy, Aldridge Ames, beat the machine again and again and again. And even in pop culture, in the film Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone - JENNIFER MNOOKIN: That's right. Sharon Stone. [LAUGHTER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: She proved to be such a stone-cold liar that the machine was no match for her, either. [VIDEO CLIP] MICHAEL DOUGLAS: Beating that machine can't be easy. SHARON STONE: If I was guilty and I wanted to beat that machine, it wouldn't be hard. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] [LAUGHS] It wouldn't be hard at all. [END VIDEO CLIP] JENNIFER MNOOKIN: That's right. There's this idea that certain people, because of their psychological makeup – say, perhaps, psychopaths – will be precisely the ones who can beat the machine. And certainly in the NAS report about the polygraph, which mostly focused on the employment and security setting, pointed out that if anyone's going to have the incentive to study how to beat the machine, it's going to be people engaged in treason and deceit.
But, you know, it's still widely used as an interrogation technique by the FBI, by local police departments. And, interestingly, they don't want it to be admitted into evidence, because if it were to be regularly admitted by courts, they'd have to answer to legal standards.
Now they can choose how to administer the tests, and, in the words of one FBI polygraph expert to me, it's a confession-producing machine. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Well, explain how it's used in that context, then. JENNIFER MNOOKIN: I think a big part of it is about making the suspect believe in the machine. And once the suspect believes in it, then often whether or not the machine works, they make the decision to confess, to tell the truth.
You know, there's apocryphal stories about sometimes police investigators using other machines, claiming that they're lie detectors, and psyching the suspect into believing that the machine will be able to see whether the suspect is telling the truth. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've written about how '40s crime films began to reinforce this myth of infallibility, and you talk about a movie called Call Northside 777, starring Jimmy Stewart, in which the polygraph decides a case. [VIDEO CLIP] ACTOR: Keep away from Keeler and that lie detector. JAMES STEWART: I'm not afraid of it. ACTOR: That's what I said. I was a cinch. Then they talked me into going up against that box. JAMES STEWART: Well, what happened? ACTOR: What do you mean, what happened? I'm doing life, ain't I? [END VIDEO CLIP] JENNIFER MNOOKIN: The polygraph test is set up in the film as a virtually infallible truth-telling device. And, interestingly, in the movie, they had Leonard Keeler, who was one of the inventors of the polygraph, play himself [BROOKE LAUGHS] to give it a certain kind of verisimilitude. Depictions like that in the film had cultural effects that would lead people to have ever more belief in it. [VIDEO CLIP] ACTOR: Would you be willing to take a lie detector test? ACTOR: Mr. McNeal, for 11 years I've been waiting for a chance to get at that box. ACTOR: You know what you're up against? If it turns out bad, you're cooked. ACTOR: I'll take the test. [END VIDEO CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: The media love to report when polygraphs are being used. Scott Peterson took it in connection with his wife's murder. The Ramseys took it in connection with the JonBenet Ramsey case. Do you think that news outlets generally are sufficiently skeptical about the polygraph? JENNIFER MNOOKIN: Well, I think you're right that suspects sometimes wield their willingness to take it as itself a mark of innocence, and that itself, regardless of what the machine ends up showing, reveals something about my belief in my own honesty.
That's a little bit what happened with Mike Jones, right? I mean, he took the test. It actually indicated some degree of deception. And yet, frankly, I think most of us suspect that he may have largely been telling the truth. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the intimidation did work with Ted Haggard in that case. JENNIFER MNOOKIN: That's exactly right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jennifer, thank you very much. JENNIFER MNOOKIN: Sure. My pleasure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jennifer Mnookin is a professor of law at the University of California Los Angeles. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited by me. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Alicia Rebensdorf and Michael McLaughlin. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.